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.