Tennessee Mom Threatened With Arrest For Letting Daughter Bike to School

It’s back-to-school time, and along with it, the requisite crackdown over kids getting to school by bike. A few years ago, we highlighted cases from Mississippi to British Columbia where authorities stopped kids from walking alone.

There's no Google street view of the intersection where Tryon's daughter was stopped for riding her bike, but here's the same street, close to the school.

And now, we have the case of Teresa Tryon of Tennessee, threatened with criminal charges for letting her child ride a bike to school.

Bike Walk Tennessee highlighted the case on its blog, saying it was “crazy” to threaten a mother with arrest for doing more or less what all parents should be doing: encouraging active lifestyles for our kids.

“On August 25th, my 10-year[-old] daughter arrived home via police officer,” Tryon said. “The officer informed me that in his ‘judgment’ it was unsafe for my daughter to ride her bike to school.”

Bike Walk Tennessee says Tryon’s daughter’s route to school was reasonably safe, and Tryon herself said Monday that she “passed a total of eight cars in the four times” she was on that road that day. Observers say it is an un-striped, residential street. Police say it’s one of the busiest streets in town, connecting public housing units and subdivisions to the downtown area.

Nonetheless, when Tryon complained to the police, she was reportedly told that until the officer can speak with Child Protective Services, “if I allow my daughter to ride/walk to school I will be breaking the law and treated accordingly.” She asked what law she would be breaking, and was told the answer was “child neglect.” The officer acknowledged Tryon’s daughter wasn’t breaking any laws.

Columnist Lenore Skenazy regularly writes about giving children the independence to make their way around their neighborhoods freely and unsupervised. In a recent post, she points to a child development book from 1979, when six-year-olds could be expected to be able to “travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home.”

Skenazy is regularly chastised for trying to grant her kids a similar level of independence, and in Elizabethton, Tryon is defending herself against possible legal action for doing so.

According to Elizabethton Police Chief Matt Bailey, the street Tryon’s daughter was riding on is a busy street with a blind curve and a hill. Tryon says her daughter has taken a bicycle riding course, but the chief said an officer saw her passing a stopped school bus on the left, swerving into oncoming traffic, on a particularly busy three-way intersection in a manner that he thought was unsafe. When he approached her, he says she admitted that the traffic made her nervous, and he said that’s when he brought her home to talk to her mother about it.

Passing motorists had also expressed their concern to the police, and Child Protective Services had already talked to Tryon about it. Commenters on the Bike Walk Tennessee blog post were suspicious of the chief’s assertion that his only concern was for the girl’s safety, but Bailey said, the police are “just trying to do the right thing” to “protect this child.”

The chief acknowledged that there’s no sensible alternative route or even a safe way to cross that intersection. There are portions of the route with no sidewalk. Apparently taking the school bus wasn’t an option for her – according to the police report, the girl said “she had been kicked off the bus before and did not like it.”

Her mother maintains that the bus isn’t necessarily much safer. “She could take the bus and be bullied, punched, hit, kicked, stabbed,” Tryon wrote. “On the way to the bus she could be hit by a car, attacked by a vicious dog, the victim of a drive by shooting. Realistically the school bus COULD crash and kill her.”

Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, just commented on the League’s blog that Tryon’s is “a frustrating story with no obvious winners and lots of people left feeling aggrieved.” Rather than take a position on whether or not the police were correct to intervene, Clarke makes the case that the situation points to the need for greater investment in safe routes to school for kids.

  • Guy Hackett

    Read the police report. Chief Matt Bailey lied about the girl passing a school bus.

  • Easy harassment civil suit. Please, if you’re a lawyer who can help, try to get in touch with them.

  • Clutch J

    Yes, this sort of outrageous police behavior must be stopped. Good intentions don’t make up for abuse of power or wrong-headedness.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like a classic case of government run amok, I’m surprised they’re letting that fly in Tennessee.  They still have their guns, though…which makes me think:

    “If cycling is outlawed, then only outlaws will ride bicycles!” 

    Or: “I’ll give you my bike when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

  • Eric McClure

    “Child neglect?” How about dereliction of duty by the local police department for failure to enforce traffic laws that should ensure that the streets are safe enough for a 10-year-old to bike to school without danger?

  • Eric McClure

    And here’s a good one: “Passing motorists had also expressed their concern to the police.”

    A better way for passing motorists to express their concern would be to drive in a defensive manner that would allow the girl to bike without fear of being hit.

  • Guest

    In more civilized places, the police actually spends some of their time *teaching* kids how to ride safely on the streets. That not only benefits the kids when they ride their bikes, but many years later, when the kids become motorists, they will know more about how to drive safely around cyclists.

  • Bolwerk

    This is probably in part a hangover of the 1980s crime epidemic and the 1990s response of hiring more police officers to fight crime that was already disappearing for demographic reasons.  Now there are hordes of police officers who probably don’t serve a useful purpose, even within the confines of the duties police officers are hired to perform, and can do nothing but collect paychecks to harass citizens to maintain the veneer of working.

  • Anonymous

    funny how in these right wing anti gay “get gummint off my back” we have cops arresting people for the “crime” of a child riding a bike. and yet the liberals capitulate to these loud right wingers every time…..

  • moocow

    I had problems with that quote too. It seems they were concerned with having to slow down for a 10 year old doing what 10 year olds should do, riding bikes.

  • chiggins

    In the comments of the Bike Walk Tennessee post…

      http://bikewalktn.blogspot.com/2011/08/arrested-for-riding-bike-to-school.html

    …before this became a national story, one Mr. Bill Hobbs posts about the  20 minute interview he had with the police chief, and the answers he got back. All the stuff about the girl riding unsafely is a changed story, and clearly a bald-faced lie. That girl wasn’t doing anything unsafe, but it sounds as if the people who complained about her were, in fact, committing moving violations to get around her. Those people received not so much as a goddam warning.

  • If this town is concerned about their children’s safety (as well they should be!) they are in luck!  The solution is with their reach through basic common sense street engineering.  Imagine relying on police officers to pick up children willy-nilly and drive them home and then involve child protective services, when a few simple measures to regulate traffic will suffice. Creating safe routes for children to walk or bike to school is not only good for children’s health and sense of autonomy,  in the long run it’s far cheaper than police enforcement and court cases.

    There seems to be controversy over whether the street in question is in fact busy or not.

    If this is indeed a quiet, residential street, then speed humps or other physical traffic calming measures can be added to the road to ensure all motorists drive slowly enough to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists of all ages along the lines of a Dutch woonerf. When a motorist sees a child on a bicycle, they can expect to drive less than 10 mph until they can safely pass.  If the motorist needs to get somewhere in a hurry, they really should be taking an arterial street designed for faster traffic.

    If this is indeed a busy street with dangerous traffic, create physically-separated bike lanes that are safe enough and easy enough to use that even a nervous 8 year can manage them.  Engineer the three way intersection with a separate signal for bicycles so that a child can easily understand when to go and when to wait. 

    Offer classes to all children at school on how to ride and walk neighborhood streets safely.  In addition, have an adult besides the driver ride the school bus to eliminate bullying, hitting, kicking, punching and stabbing before the school district ends up with a law suit for criminally negligent oversight.

  • icarus12

    Thanks for covering this kind of story.  Unless we contest this kind of misguided “child protection”, we are never going to get the general population to wake up to the changes in street design we need.  It was interesting, too, what commenter, Bolwerk, said about how the 1980s crime peak led to keeping children indoors, under supervision all the time.  I hope we can change childhood back to a time of exploration and growing independence.  These kind of public discussions are needed for that change to happen.

  • Ben from Bed Stuy

    Here in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, I’ve met kids in the neighborhood who love to ride their bikes near their apartments, but because there is no bike parking at school, they can’t ride there. School busses are among the most expensive line items in any school district’s budget – imagine the savings a school could see if they were to encourage kids to bike instead of ride the bus or car?

  • Guest 11

    From one of the comments the bikewalktennessee
    “When I mentioned to Bailey that the school has a bike rack – clearly
    indicating they expect kids will ride their bikes to school”

    Instead of making streets safer and limiting car traffic around schols, they’ll start removing the racks soon.

  • Mark Barnette

    Too bad it just is not ever possible to slow motorized traffic the f**k down, because that would, you know, solve every single problem related to safely using public streets by every segment of the population forever and ever. Damn shame, that.

  • Davistrain

    Unfortunately, speed is prized in the US culture and patience is not.

  • ConcernedCitizen

    Governmental rules/regulations are increasingly trying to control our lives. What happened to “Freedom” that the United States is “supposed” to be about?

  • Probikeprosafety

    Protect the child, yes; threaten Child Protective Servies, no. 

  • If the way the officer describes it is the case, then he certainly should have visited the parents, but threatening child neglect is way over the line. I hope the parents are taking responsibility for having conversations with their daughter on what’s expected, how to be safe, etc. Those lessons may need to be reinforced but I’m blown away at the assertion that she’d be breaking the law if she let her kid do it again. 

  • I’m all for kids biking to school, but it sounds like Mom might be a stay-at-home mom–is it possible for Mom to ride along (getting some exercise herself)? Would that make a difference in the eyes of the police?

  • Magpie

    In Switzerland where I live, it’s generally not permitted to ride your bike to school until the second grade (though exceptions are made for students who live outside a certain radius). In the second grade, the police come to the school and teach the kids bike traffic safety and take them out riding around town for a morning, sometimes two. Seems like that would Go a long way towards alleviating safety concerns by, you know, proactively teaching them traffic safety. (The police also teach Kindergarteners how to cross the street, which is just about the cutest use of tax dollars EVER)

  • Anonymous

    When I was in grade school in the late 70s, in a rural part of a Western state, I remember watching  safety films about how to ride your bike to school that were clearly made in the 50s.  THE 50s, people: the ultimate golden era of suburban expansion, highways, big cars, freedom, apple pie, and American exceptionalism.  Could this be a case of “Harper Valley PTA,” where a certain kind of agitating element who encourages their kid to bike is being judged and harassed as part of the culture war?

  • Sonyab602

    This is truly ridiculous.  Personally, I’d let her ride to school, the police call CPS and take it all the way to the Supreme Court.  I wonder if it were the father if the police would be so brazen?

  • Slartibartfatsdomino

    When I was ten, in 1980, I used to bike everywhere in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, which at the time, had a murder rate rivaling Detroit’s and no bike lanes of any kind (although it was also ok to bike on the sidewalk, no-one thought anything of it). If my parents had tried to prevent me from biking where I wanted to bike (the comic store, the deli, the playground, and friends’ houses, mostly), I would have REBELLED.  

  • John Haley

    WTF? Especially in a society full of grossly obese children, it is the height of idiocy to discourage kids from riding their bikes. I grew up in Dallas in the late 60s-early 70s and walked to school until I got my first bike in the 6th grade. The first time I was driven to school was when I entered high school, and only then because I lived 6 miles away and would have had to ride on several major thoroughfares to get there. Another sign of the apocalypse…

  • Ccmagnan

    Please check out the immensely popular program in my town http://www.wickedlocal.com/westwood/photos/x1249732136/Photos-Safety-Town?foto=0

    The town also has crossing guards who encourage bike and pedestrian safety.  It’s a shame to blame the parent when the town should be encouraging in

  • Ccmagnan

    Please check out the immensely popular program in my town http://www.wickedlocal.com/westwood/photos/x1249732136/Photos-Safety-Town?foto=0

    The town also has crossing guards who encourage bike and pedestrian safety.  It’s a shame to blame the parent when the town should be encouraging in

  • Steeleweed

    I rode a bike or a unicycle to school until I got my driver’s license and first car. I walked to pre-school – age 4, distance about 1.5 miles.  Somehow I survived and there aren’t many things in the world that scare me (except where the government is heading). Over-protecting kids teaches the wrong lesson and makes them go through life afraid of their on shadows.

  • Franciswolcott

    Sounds like Mom needs a lawyer.

  • only in USA?

    i’m driving my bike to school since I was 3 and 20 year later, i’m still doing the samen. have been (nearly) overrun several times, always when i was on a sidestrip –> drinving in the middle of the street seems to be safer someone said here in a discussion about biking in Brussels.

  • “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free”

  • Anonymous

    This whole episode perfectly illustrates how mentally enslaved we Americans are to our internal combustion engines. Foot and bike travel for reasonable distances should be a priority over gas powered vehicles. Our roadways and sidewalks need to be reworked in their favor.

  • Adalinda

    When I was a child I always walked or rode my bike, from kindergarten on up.  My 18mo older brother was tasked to look after me (hah).  I am not saying that was a sane idea, but what is the age when we let children travel and play with out mico-managing?  At 10 I was watching the neighbor children when the mothers ran errands.  I believe it taught me responsibility

  • guest

    to bad the police cant sove the menth problem. hey have to go after a 10 year girl. the gril took personal respony to get her self to school after she got kick off the bus. the only thing the girl can do is to ride 2nd ave. that will sove most of the traffic problem. but not all of it. i hope a good laywer will take the case for free and put the police and dhs(the nizs ) in their palce.

  • Rrwmike

    What is scary is it was a Male cop picking up some random 10yr old girl off the street and put the kid in a cruiser. This is sketchy police behavior for a cop. Unless the kid was breaking a law or was cycling irresponsibly  this would be harassment. 
    If it was some random guy who did that people would think the dude was a perv or nuts and he would have been charged.

  • mch

    In suburban NJ in the 1950’s, everybody (and there were LOTS of children in those days) walked to school or rode bikes, at every school age. (No buses, and parents seldom provided “a ride to school,” even in bad weather.) Elementary schools in that town: some children (like me) walked/biked a mile each way, including home and back for lunch, including on some roads with damned heavy traffic. Bike-riding filled many hours of many summer days. (“Let’s ride our bikes.”) Less bike-riding when we hit junior high and high school, especially by girls. (We girls still had to wear skirts, and adolescent girls wearing skirts on bikes….) I should mention that these bikes were very simple by today’s standards. It was real work to make it up a hill. No helmets, of course.  
    When we were in elementary school, parents did have some rules about where we could walk and especially where we could ride our bikes. Don’t walk in the brook. Don’t ride your bikes over by the river. Don’t ride them to that place near the railroad tracks where the hobos hang out (hobos really did still have a spot by the tracks). Don’t take your bikes downtown. Don’t ride around looking for building sites to explore.
    If this all sounds Leave-It-to-Beaver wholesome, it was. Wholesome even in the way we frequently broke our parents’ rules. 
    Who wouldn’t come home via the brook on a beautiful spring afternoon, especially if the waters had risen and the brook was unusually fast-flowing and noisy, exposing fewer rocks to navigate by? Who wouldn’t want to check out to see if the hobos had had a campfire by the railroad tracks recently? (Besides, the abandoned, falling-down, stucco-backed greenhouses nearby, built into the side of a hill and moss-covered in summer, were like ruined mansions. An Odyssey of exploration.) Who wouldn’t ride down to Mardany’s (which may also have been a booky’s) in thick traffic to buy some candy (sometimes with the change stolen from the top of your father’s bureau — he wouldn’t miss a nickel, would he?)? Who wouldn’t want to ride off to the part of town where a lot of building was going on (we didn’t register that all this building was reducing the number of our beloved vacant lots and other open spaces) so we could roam through a construction site?
    Wounded knees, elbows, and sometimes chins were just to be expected, but a nail in the foot from construction-site roaming brought on an honest confession to the parents, who would be more concerned with tetanus shot issues than anything else. 
    And who no doubt knew all along that we were breaking their rules sometimes (did they know how often?). That was part of the compact. Their rules were really only a combination of warning and helpful guide, and I think the parents would have been not just surprised but disappointed if we hadn’t tested, pushed the limits.       

  • C. Van Ihinger

    The police were on the right track to flag an unsafe situation, but they went after the wrong person.  Better that they arrest the mayor of Elizabethtown for persistently failing to address and correct these known street hazards.

    Best wishes to Ms Tryon.  Keep on cycling!

  • Piratemom

    I readthe words”public housing” and itimmediatly came to mind that, in a poor neighborhood, the authorities feel they need to supervise everyone.   Let the little girl ride her bike! 

  • I think the cop showed incredible restraint in not tasering the girl. It’s true they have more fun tasering the elderly, the retarded, mothers, and the injured but still they seem to enjoy it so much to actually pass up the chance, amazing.

  • Fortkendall

    My sons began biking to school when they were nine, and never had any problems in the rather significant commuter traffic of Madison, Wisconsin, in an area stuffed with people communting to work at a two major hospitals and the University of Wisconsin.

    We advocated for and acheived several pedestrian safety islands on especially busy neighborhood streets, which helped improve safety for all pedestrians and cyclists.

    If the people in this Tennessee town can’t provide a safe route for children to get themselves to school (while at the same time developing a love for physical activity that will help to kep them well for a lifetime), then the good police should give this girl a personal escort to school so she can safely ride her bike every day.

  • cautiousmom

    The fact is if there were stricter laws to deal with drunk driving, pedophiles and murderers, our roads would be a safe place for kids to ride their bikes and walk to school. I walked to school at six years old, but I would not let my children do it.

  • John Moser

    We execute murderers and pedophiles. Drunk driving is punished harshly on the assumption that you don’t get caught the first few dozen times–I actually find this objectionable, as the law is written based on the theory of presumed guilt of prior, conjectured crimes with no basis.

  • Stacy Clarkson

    Government grows,and freedom lessens…

    The founders warned of this!