Furor — and Aftermath — Over Suspension of Biking Students

Hi Readers! Quite a few of you sent in this story, now gone viral, about the high school principal who suspended upward of 6o students for their “prank” — a mass bike ride to school. As WOOD TV reported:

Seniors called police for an escort, and even called Walker’s mayor, who rode in the parade.

“Police escort, with the mayor, who brought us donuts. …The mayor brought us donuts…” said a group of seniors following the ride.

But school official weren’t told in advance, hence the word prank, and were not happy with the event.

They kicked the seniors out of school for their last day and threatened to keep them from walking in graduation ceremonies set for May 30.

The principal was upset not only because the ride led to traffic snarling (and principal snarling, apparently), but also because, “”If you and your parents don’t have sense enough to know your brains could end up splattered on Three Mile and Kinney, Fruit Ridge, then maybe that’s my responsibility.”

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe things that go on outside of school have nothing to do with the principal. And maybe people who are 17 or 18 and are responsible enough to call the police AHEAD OF TIME are responsible enough to take a bike ride. And maybe bike riding is GOOD.

All these points seem to have occurred — belatedly — to the principal who has since issued an apology. Mostly it seems she was taken by surprise and overwhelmed with worry. In the cold light of dawn (and massive media attention) she realized this was not truly a “prank.” It was the way we’d like our kids to act pretty much all the time.

So — hats off to the biking seniors, and to a  principal willing to do the brave thing and say, “I was wrong.” Everyone is growing up so fast! – L.

35 Responses

  1. Always good to see adults set a good example by admitting fault when they mess up and then taking steps to make it right. Too bad the principal had to lose it first, but at least now the kids have a solid example to follow when they make their own mistakes in life – own up to it, make amends, and try to do better next time.
    Love the bike parade to school idea. So much better than having all those kids driving cars, wouldn’t you think!?!

  2. What is with principals & their power trips? I’m glad she apologized – that may be the biggest lesson those kids will ever learn …you can make a terrible decision, react inappropriately & then, APOLIGIZE. We all make mistakes.

    Sad when young adults bicycling to school makes the news …

  3. I think school principals are often mentally ill. They create little worlds where they can play God, and, when that isn’t enough, they intrude on the external lives of students as well. They also seem to believe that parents are incompetent so they have to step in and take over our jobs as well.

    In other words, they can be either insane or they desperately need to grow up.

  4. I’m curious about this community since the first response from the principal is that brains will be splattered on the road. Were the kids riding on an interstate, or similar 4-lane highway? Is there a huge problem with drivers there wantonly disobeying traffic laws? Is there history of contention between vehicle drivers and bicyclists?

    I’d love to believe that there is background justifying the principal’s worst-first thinking (death) but I’m betting there’s not.

  5. FOrsythia, we had a principal like that! Out of the 3 we’ve had through my son’s school career, she’s the only one that would send reminders for parents to feed their kids breakfast and give them baths…..because clearly we parents barely got our kids to 5 without killing them – and that was probably done incompetently or was a miracle! I loathed that woman and transfered my kid right out of that school ASAP!

  6. I’m usually opposed to more laws, but just this once, maybe a federal law that says the school’s authority ceases to exist outside of the physical boundaries of the school property or normally accepted school hours.

  7. This is how you handle things when your worst-first thinking leads to mass suspensions of students trying to do something positive. Good for her and good lesson for the students on admitting when you are wrong and apologizing.

  8. Guess it doesn’t take much for that principal to call “prank.” Hopefully she won’t cry wolf next time students at her school do something so well planned and harmless.

  9. It’s just bizarre that she imposed a school-based punishment over something that was police-sanctioned, to the point where the police PARTICIPATED. Where on earth was her HEAD?

  10. @buffy I google-mapped this: it is somewhat wide streets in a nonresidential area (near high school) that may have some truck traffic. However, a small highway is one block over and drivers should be using that, so I’d guess it is an OK place to bike and unpleasant to walk. There may be a sidewalk, but perhaps this is an undersized bike path. I am glad they took their parade to the streets.

  11. I’d be a proud parent if my child(ren) organized a group bike ride to school. My kids have been a part of a parent-organized (me) group ride to school and I will be thrilled when my son and/or daughter takes a lead role in middle/high school.

  12. I’m still amazed that schools try to control how anyone gets to school. Mass bike ride, walking, car, skateboard, horse-drawn buggie, dog sled. Who cares? None of it is the school’s business (okay the horse and dogs may be if you are planning to leave them at school all day).

  13. When are school officials going to learn to mind their own beeswax? Sheesh.

  14. Like Donna, I’m surprised that schools can control how students get to and from school. It’s not that way at all in Germany. Kids walk or ride scooters to school starting in first grade, bike on their own starting in 4th, and take the bus or train starting in 5th. The kids are also released from school, even first graders, without anyone checking that a parent is there to fetch them. My son rides his bike to school, about 2.5 km each way, except during inclement weather.

    If there were more kids and adults riding their bikes, local motorists would be more aware of them and know to watch out for them. I live in a small city with no dedicated bike lanes. But because cyclists are so common, even on rainy and snowy days, local drivers know that they will be on the roads and are more cautious around them. It’s the tourists that those of us who cycle have to worry about.

    I applaud the kids for taking the initiative to cycle to school and to call the police for an escort. It’s a bit strange for kids that age to have a police escort to cycle to school, but that’s my opinion. I’m also glad that the principal apologized for the mistake. Admitting an error is a good example to set for the students.

  15. I don’t think the kids asked for a police escort to ride their bikes to school. I think they asked the police if it was okay because 60+ bikes riding together on a roadway at prime commuting time IS actually a nuisance. The police then offered the escort – quite possibly because, like the mayor, they wanted to be involved or possibly because 60+ bikes on a roadway at “rush hour” is a traffic hazard but most likely some of both. I think it shows a very mature level of consideration for the other people who use the road that these kids thought to clear it first before they just jumped on their bikes and obstructed traffic.

  16. Being Dutch, the notion that some principal would punish kids for *cycling* to school is mind-boggling. Heck, the notion that they thought they needed a police escort for doing so is bizarre!!

    Look how Dutch kids go to school. Every day. Rain or shine:

  17. @gap.runner There may be rules about large slow organized groups on roadways. Are you sure that Germany does not have some too?

    60+ bikes riding together is different then smaller groups riding individually. For instance, it is very hard to impossible to overcome them in car. Police presence alone may calm impatient drivers. They can also help organizes to keep the group together to be as little nuisance as possible.

    For example, the police can override traffic lights, so the group does not split into two big groups on red. That would create two large slow groups.

    I do not know whether they would be willing to do that for 60+ high schoolers. It is not as huge as mass bike or Friday roller parades which usually have both police and ambulance. The police then stops the traffic on crossroad while the group passes, so they pass together even if the traffic light becomes red.

  18. @Marion Ros The people in the video are cycling on dedicated bicycle lanes. I’m not sure about the video end, but everything in first three minutes are definitely Dutch bicycle lanes. That is entirely different then cycling on roads.

    Dutch car drivers are used to cyclists. Not only that, bicycle in there has an absolute priority. Plus, if an accident happen, it is assumed that car driver is responsible. It may be unfair sometimes, but the result is that drivers there are very careful.

    Lastly, Dutch laws regarding groups on roads is clear: any group over 30 people can use big roads regardless on how slow are they. American law is probably different. And even as the slow groups are allowed, when Amsterdam Friday Roller Night started, the police used to go with them. They stopped accompanied them only after years when they through that organizers learned how to manage traffic on roads safely.

    You can not compare those two things.

  19. @Andy: Yes, I know, the reason why the Dutch cycle so much and their kids ride to school independantly from age 8 or so is facilitated by their (our) excellent cycle infrastructure. But that’s not the (my) point. My point is that I, being Dutch, am flabbergasted by the hooply being made about (near) adults *cycling* to school. It’s cultureshock. It happens frequently on this blog that I am appalled by the utterly (to me) weird things and ideas in American Parenting World.

    Six year olds taking hand-sanitizers to school? (I had to google ‘handsanitizers’ and found out it’s the antiseptic gel thing we only buy if we go camping and don’t expect to have regular access to soap and water)

    Schools cancelling outside play because some kid might scrape their knee?!

    Kids having to be brought into school and fetched from the school by a parent in a way that rivals the changing of the guard in friggin’ *Alcatraz*?!!

    Thinking it okay for 16-yo’s to *drive* to school (the age where kids are allowed to take driving *lessons* over here is 18) but freaking out when they *cycle*?!

    To me this is just as weird and unthinkable as that video about kids in the Amazon (or wherever it was) going to school via a ropebridge:

  20. Great outcome – common sense triumphs (in the end!)

  21. Marion – thank you for the wonderful video. My little town here in Maine is, over time, implementing as many bike and pedestrian paths as possible. They only have the money to do it when they are repaving a street anyway, so it takes time. But in the last few years we have gotten several miles of dedicated walking paths. I think if urban planners in the US watched this little video it would give them an inspiring image to shoot for, even if they couldn’t implement it right away. Sometimes we get in a rut and only can visualize what we already know (kids being driven or bussed to school) and a video clip like this would open people up to new possibilities. Change, most often, needs a model!

  22. @Andy, There is a yearly 2-day cycling festival in my city with different races and more casual rides. Certain streets are closed off at various times to accommodate the riders and racers. The local paper publishes the dates and times when the streets will be closed to car traffic. I have seen other organized groups of cyclists using the roads and they have priority over cars.

    Like in the Netherlands, bikes in Germany have priority and motorists can expect to pay very large fines for hitting a cyclist. Some cities, like Munich or Bremen, have dedicated bike lanes either on the road or the sidewalk. In my city there are some multi-use paths but no real bike lanes on the roads. But as I said in my previous post, there are so many cyclists that local drivers know to watch for them. The only “bike lanes” on the busy streets are multi-use paths on the roads that go into Austria. They run parallel to the main road.

    @Marion Ros, I’m American but have lived in Germany for over 20 years. Some of the things that baffle you about the USA also baffle me like: kids carrying tubes of hand sanitizer, kids not being allowed to play outside when there is one cloud in the sky (it might rain), parents being required to drive their kids to school, kids not being allowed to bring treats to school on their birthdays, and kids not being able to walk or ride their bikes to nearby destinations (e.g. a friend’s house) by themselves. Lenore’s piece about Izzy riding the subway in New York City would probably not have been published here because kids using public transportation is a normal thing in Western Europe.

  23. Nice article. Thanx for posting

  24. enyawface, I think that’s an example of a law that shouldn’t be necessary, but in an era lacking a sense of personal privacy/responsibility, may be necessary.

  25. Petty tyrants really annoy me. Here’s an idea for payback – Surprise The Principal Day.

    The idea is for a goodly number of students to find a way to surprise the principal. Emphasis – this act does not have to be annoying in any way! In fact, it’s better if it isn’t. If the act is not intentionally annoying or negative in some way, if it has a clear wholesome aspect (like riding bicycles to school), then the principal’s loud objections and threats will just make the principal look all the more like a tin god worthy of shame.

    For example, read the dress code very carefully. Then organize students to dress like the principal and to look as alike as possible while 100% adhering to the dress code. One of two things might happen. First, the principal gets it and laughs with the students. Second, the principal erupts, wildly waves arms, scowls, and issues empty threats. Either outcome is highly entertaining.

  26. @gap.runner Yeah, I hear you, but none of this means that there are no rules governing cyclists on the roads. For instance, the whole festival is organized and everybody knows about it up front. The streets are not closed on someones whim, closing of streets is allowed by German authorities.

    I know for a fact, that cyclists have no business on German highways. (Not surprising and very logical.)

    It is not only about safety, it is also about nuisance for drivers. After all, those people are usually in hurry to work and do not need to get in trouble for being late. Which is why asking police whether it is OK makes sense.

    I have been in Germany and seen cyclists there. I drove bicycle there. I have not seen groups of cyclists slow down the traffic.

  27. Principal Katie Pennington has now made Walker, Michigan a laughing stock. And although she apologized, her original knee-jerk reaction can’t be condoned.

    Pennington said this biking to school prank kept buses and staff from reaching school on time… but I say: Lighten up! How important is that during the last few days of a school year?

    Perhaps the real prank here is: doing something harmless that made a principal over-react and become infamous and a laughing stock throughout th world.

    School districts with principals like Pennington deserve the notoriety they get. Their names and stories live forever on the internet.

  28. Before people find yet another reason to dump on schools, recent legislation (related to the Dignity for All Act) has made schools liable for students’ activities outside of school. As a society, we can’t have it both ways. If laws are going to make student action a school’s responsibility 24/7/365, how is this type of reaction not to be expected? Schools are forced to error on the side of caution because the fear of litigation from a parent whose child was not supervised or 100% safe at every breathing moment is now an expectation. That school adminstrators are shell shocked by over zealous parents, the media, and ridiculous laws about how much of a student’s life is their responsibility is not an indictment on their mental sanity. It is what the majority of the voting populace wants.

  29. Except that the “voting populace” doesn’t actually vote on laws. We are a representative republic and not a true democracy. We elect representatives to pass laws for us. Yes, we choose our representatives based on their stance on certain issues but I don’t think all the intricate parts of the Dignity for All Act was a big campaign subject. Nor do I think most people even know about it. So we are a far cry from saying “it is what the majority of the voting populace wants.” Since law making in the US is much like a sausage factory – you are better off not knowing what goes on there – we can’t even say this is what the majority of the legislature WANTS. We can only say that the majority of the legislature voted for a law containing that provision.

    Since Americans in general hate to be told what to do by others, I seriously doubt most are in favor of this law as applied to themselves. Since many Americans are busy bodies who always know what is best for everyone, I’m equally as sure that many are in favor of this law as applied to others who are doing it “wrong” because the children have to be protected. And that is how we got into this mess.

  30. @LTMG–When I was in high school, one of my friends from student council actually dressed up as the female vice-principal for Halloween, during school hours. No negative reactions happened, and it was a normal Halloween–costumes all day, candy and costume judging (and maybe some other special activity, I don’t remember) in the cafeteria at lunch, and a dance that night. This would have been around…..oh, 2001 or 2002 or so? I don’t quite remember, but I do remember that adults seemed at lot more “relaxed” than they are now.

  31. I live in Arizona and we just had a school here ban biking to school – http://www.azcentral.com/community/gilbert/articles/2012/05/11/20120511gilbert-charter-school-edu-prize-bans-bikes.html

    This is a top-rated charter school with a HUGE waiting list. I think what amazes me, is that they talk about their “weekly” physical education class as a realistic substitute for the exercise received daily by biking to/from school.

    Ultimately, this may only affect about 18 kids (according to the article, that is all that bike), and possibly 50 who walk. And, school is either already out for the year, or will be shortly. (Most schools here are already out for summer.)

  32. This story just infuriates me. What we have here is a large group of teens biking to school, which is no way illegal and should not be considered a nuisance. If anything this just shows how anti-car the U.S. truly is. What kind of isolated town is this that they don’t know that bikes in most states are LEGALLY VEHICLES, meaning they have the same rights as motor vehicles. And everyone cares about the cars that are a few minutes late?! FFS.

  33. This is completely absurd to me: schools should actually be PROMOTING biking to school as a way to promote a healthy lifestyle and in an attempt to protect the environment. Even as a first reaction it is just strange for someone to think of biking as bad.

  34. So, early on someone suggested that if “we” want more information on what happened to send the principal an e-mail and even provided her address. I did and asked essentially – “what is it the kids did wrong?” – and this is the response from Principal Pennington:
    Thank you for taking the time to write. My response to the event on the 22nd was not meant to be a commentary on cycling or physical fitness. I actually enjoy both. For me, it was an issue of student safety. The streets on which the students rode are two-lane highways (55 mph speed limit) that are heavily travelled at that time of day. Given my preparatory speech for the seniors the week prior to the incident, I was disappointed that I was not given the opportunity to sanction the event, make it safe, and truly turn it into a school wide (even community wide) activity. As it stands, the police cruiser that accompanied the students was dispatched that morning, and the police chief held a press conference the following day to publically state that the event was not safe nor was it sanctioned by the police department.

    As my public statement on the 23rd indicates, I am truly sorry for the way in which I over-reacted with the seniors who participated in this event. I do not believe they meant any harm by engaging in this activity. While I cannot undo my actions last week, I think much of the healing from this incident has already begun. Our Commencement last week was truly one to remember.

    I hope that helps clarify the information that is being reported in the media. I would honestly like the media attention to ebb, but I chose to respond to your e-mail because it is one of the few I have received that was polite, sincere, and lacked profanity/obscenity. One point of clarification is that our graduating class was 232 students. If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

  35. I have a question for everyone about kids and biking. My 11 year old son loves to bike and has been biking to his elementary school by himself for two years now- it is about a mile away and the route does involve crossing a busy 4 lane road (with a crosswalk). He has occasionally had adults question why he is out by himself, but nothing too bad. Generally biking to school is supported here by the Safe Routes to School program.
    In the last year he has started doing longer rides, first with me but also by himself. He will go out by himself for a few hours, on 10-15 mile rides in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay area (Berkeley, El Cerrito, Pinole, Albany, Oakland). He brings a bike pump and a cell phone in case he gets a flat or needs help.
    My question is how far I should let him go. He has become a very capable biker. The two of us went on a long bike trip together- 200 miles in 4 days. He would like to do a 30-40 mile ride by himself out to Vallejo (pretty much all on side streets) and then take the bus back. I want to support his independence, but am a little worried that this might be a little too much at this point. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this question.

    Proud but worried biking dad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: