The Unintended Consequences of Michigan Students’ Bike-to-School “Prank”

Radio personality Kevin "Gravy" Canup delivers a bike, donated by Grand Rapids Bicycle Company, to Kenowa Hills High School in Walker, MI. Photo: Chris Clark for ##http://photos.mlive.com/grandrapidspress/2012/05/gravy_delivers_gift_to_kenowa_2.html##MLive.com

Tuesday morning, a group of intrepid high schoolers in the western Michigan city of Walker got onto their bikes and into a heap of trouble.

The Kenowa Hills High School students, eschewing a tradition of senior pranks that often destroy school property (spray-painting lockers and super-gluing doors, for example), opted to ride their bikes to the last day of classes in an impromptu parade.

They called the police department, which routinely accompanies similar events. They called the mayor of Walker, Rob VerHeulen, who rode along with the cops and even brought donuts. It was a “beautiful morning,” VerHeulen told WMXI, nearby Grand Rapids’ Fox affiliate.

But they neglected to call the school (it was a senior prank, after all). So when the convoy arrived — on time — they were greeted by Principal Katie Pennington, who promptly sent some 64 participating students home and informed them that not only would they be suspended for the last day of school, but they would also be prohibited from walking in the school’s graduation ceremonies. Cue the parental outrage.

One media mini-firestorm later, enough dust had settled for the school administration to rescind their suspensions and reschedule exams and commencement. A local radio host even convinced the Grand Rapids Cycle Company to donate a bike to the school, delivering it in person at a district board meeting to resounding applause.

“Did I overreact? In retrospect, of course I did,” Pennington said in a statement posted to the high school’s website yesterday. “My first response to learning of our high school seniors riding bikes to school on busy roads was to fear for their safety, and I responded in kind.”

And with that, whether or not it was their intention, the Walker 64 have helped draw attention to the sad state of bicycle infrastructure in many areas with considerable pent-up demand for cycling.

“The idea that a group of kids riding bikes to school constitutes a ‘prank,’ and a life-threatening one at that, raised eyebrows among more than a few cyclists, including myself,” said Ken Paulman, writing for Midwest Energy News. “But thanks to the magic of Google Maps, we can see that Pennington has a point.”

This bridge is the only way over a freeway on the way to Kenowa Hills High School. Image: ##http://www.midwestenergynews.com/2012/05/23/when-riding-a-bike-is-a-prank/##Midwest Energy News/Google Street View##

After taking his readers on a virtual tour of the students’ bike route, mainly composed of two-lane rural roads and not much in the way of safe space for biking and walking, Paulman gets to the crux of the issue:

[W]hen the mere act of kids riding bikes to school can cause a major disruption and bring down entire links in a community’s transportation system, that points to perhaps some deeper issues of urban planning. Critics of alternative transportation infrastructure often criticize it as “social engineering,” but plopping a school into a semi-rural area that’s only accessible by car takes away the students’ (and parents’) ability to decide for themselves how they want to get to school and back.

“We applaud the initiative and intention of the students, and we also appreciate concerns about the safety of cyclists and pedestrians,”  echoed Rhonda Romano, head of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Midwest Office, in a letter to the editor obtained by Streetsblog. “In fact, these two goals — cycling to school and providing safe facilities to do so — go hand in hand.” (RTC has recently shown that rural cycling rates fall more in line with major urban centers than one might think.)

“The terrific news is that the students of Kenowa Hills High School already get it — this isn’t going to be like forcing children to eat their broccoli,” Romano wrote.

  • Jess T.

    Hmm…like it or not, this isn’t the Netherlands or Denmark where biking is the norm, and where drivers tend to drive at lower speeds and watch out for non-motorists (and where King-sized SUVs are almost unheard of). Biking on American streets is a highly dangerous activity outside of a few areas like Portland.

    That said, the principal should have been fired for this overreaction. Apparently, she has a history of this type of thing.

  • @ Jess T: Yeah, that’s kind of the point that it’s rare and often unsafe. It needs to change.

  • Clutch J

    @ Jess: No, we don’t like it. And we’re not gonna take it anymore. 

  • Ben Kintisch

    Maybe next year they won’t have to wait until senior prank day to ride to school. How about the first day of school, instead?

  • jwatling

     and also Jess, remember that the Netherlands and Denmark made decisions to increase cycling’s share of transportation. They instituted policies that encouraged it. Now, as you say, bicycling is normal, but it wasn’t always like that….even in Denmark. I hope we can change the mindset here as well.

  • Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions. The more time someone spends in a car the fatter and less fit they are. Kids who actively commute to school are more likely to have less excess weight and body fat than those who do not. Children who ride a bike to school 2 or more times a week are less likely to be overweight. 70% of obese children go on to become obese adults. Fully 1/3 of adults are obese in the US. Children who are physically fit score higher on math and reading tests than their less fit classmates. Girls who walk or bike to school have higher cognitive test scores–the further they walk or bike, the higher their scores regardless of how much exercise they get otherwise. Kids who walk or bike to school are less likely to smoke and watch less TV than their peers who are driven to school. Overweight teens who bike to school 3-4 days a week are 85% more likely to become a normal weight adult. Regular exercise reduces depression and increases self-esteem in overweight children.  Less than 1/3 of high schoolers participate in physical education courses. 42% of high schoolers do not participate in any type of organized sport. (Source:  http://www.bikesbelong.org/resources/stats-and-research/statistics/health-statistics/#Why%20bicycling%20is%20good%20for%20kids)

    All evidence points to the fact that biking to school makes kids healthier and helps them academically. Obviously no one wants healthy, academically successful kids (I’m sure they’re very annoying to be around), otherwise we would be encouraging children to bike to school nation-wide. The town of Walker is clever to make biking to school so extremely dangerous that a single bike ride is grounds for suspension. Social engineering via traffic engineering at its finest!

  • Ben Kintisch

    Jwatling, good point. Denmark built up its bike infrastructure slowly and steadily, starting dramaticly in the sixties after a startling number of young children were killed by motorists. Many years later, they are a bicycle shangri-la. But it took serious collective action, protests, and persistent activism at the local and federal level for the country to re-invent its transport network.

  • KillMoto

    That causeway is a perfect place to cycle.  Take a position just left of center lane.  The car following has no room to pass, will slow to the pace of the bike, blocking all following drivers.  

    Slowing down a little has never hurt anyone. 

  • Miles Bader

    @c44dc01f8107c1b33104b538f33b734d:disqus Especially if they were doing it in a group.  Even the most idiotic driver can’t ignore a huge group taking the road….

  • Tallycyclist

    It’s great that people got alarmed here.  Not just in Denmark, but in Holland it took massive protests in the 70’s to get them where they are today.  The theme they used for marketing was “Stop murdering our children.” Perhaps Kenowa Hills HS will take the lead for a campaign to improve cycling conditions using a similar approach.  Let’s be honest, a campaign on the grounds of child safety is at least going to garner less hostility than one along the lines of “it’s green!” or “it’s great for the environment!” Get people out and on the bikes first, and then maybe they will naturally start caring about sustainability without the need to have the messages shoved in their faces.  

  • Kingaiko

    I agree the bike paths are not what they should be, but Kenowa Hills was not “plopped down” anywhere. It has been here since 1961, incorporating a huge rural and farmland community. The freeway overpass in the picture did not place the students in any more danger than walking to the chicken coop.

  • Anonymous

    A demonstration of the perversity of the planning here: there is a large subdivision of a couple hundred houses right next to the high school. Some of the homes are 30 feet from the school grounds. Yet there appears to be no connection: to get to school, you’d have to go a mile and a half on high speed roads. That’s nuts!

  • DaleB

    “The theme they used for marketing was “Stop murdering our children.” ”

    Unfortunately in the US, the concept of “Doing it for the Children” and the phrase “Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children” are ruined by cynical abuse. Most parents care about children’s safety — their own children’s , that is. And the way they feel is best to increase their safety is to have them inside a car instead of biking or walking. Totally different mentality than Holland.

  • USbike

    I feel the same way, that a lot of parents only care about THEIR children.  I use to pass by an elementary school on my commute daily and witnessed how fast people would drive into the school to drop off their kids, while the unfortunate parents who walked their kids had to be extra careful about the traffic.  Some of the kids literally lived 50 meters from the entrance, yet they needed their parents to help them cross the one dangerous street.  That goes to show you how deteriorated our society has become by and large, when people start to live in their own little bubbles and care only about themselves.  What’s more tragic is that there is no no self-correcting mechanism, rather it’s only going to get worst over time, until something is done about it.  

    Even a campaign centered around child safety isn’t going to be nearly the panacea we all need to reform our traffic problems for the reasons DaleB mentioned.  But it should start being used to really spotlight the dangers that our most vulnerable users (who are our future) face on a daily basis.  An environment that is always dominated by cars will only serve to drive the community further apart and into more decay.  Mentality is very hard to change, but it can be changed over time.  If Holland had done nothing in the 70’s, perhaps their cities (and mentality) would be very similar to ours today.  

    As one blogger mentioned earlier, you can’t only market this using sustainability because it is something that really polarizes a lot of people.  Most people do not want to sacrifice convenience for something that doesn’t directly affect them to begin with.  At least, they won’t do it from being told to.  What does someone living FL, with no intentions of ever leaving, care about Glacier National Park losing its glaciers at a rapid pace?  Similarly my Pennsylvanian friends, who don’t eat seafood and aren’t environmentalists, didn’t really care too much about the Deep Horizon oil spill like the people living on the gulf.  They are not going to start changing their lifestyles for the sake of “going green.” My friends use to think it was dumb to recycle and asking them to do it was in complete vain.  However, after watching me do it daily for a few weeks, they all started doing it naturally.  They haven’t become environmental activists, but at least they recycle now.  I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t ever talk about sustainability.  It merely should not be the one and only, or the primarily, reason.  

  • A local advocate

    Everyone who is bothered by the safety problems that this story shows, please get involved with your local bike/pedestrian advocacy group (or start one), and speak up at council and school board meetings. This sort of change is going to happen at the local level (yes, with some state/federal money too, but it doesn’t need to be crazy expensive), and if we don’t ask, we won’t get.

  • B4daylight

    They should get a police escort every day of the week. 

  • guest

    I would just like to point out that the administrator who sent them all home because of their unsafe prank was an idiot. Did they not have a police escort to school? And if you send them all home, do they not have to ride that unsafe path BACK home? What a great group of kids!

  • It’s good to be the mayor–not so good to be the principal.

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