Zac Totten wanted to go out with bang. Little did he know that his senior bike ride idea would make national news headlines.
The senior at Kenowa Hills High School in a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mich., wanted to put on a show, but he didn’t want to end his run with something silly. “In years past, seniors did stupid stuff, like painting the school and camping at the school — dumb things that got them in trouble,” he told me this morning. “I wanted to do something that wouldn’t harm the school and would be good for the community.”
So he came up with a great idea that fit that bill. He got on the (private) Facebook group for his senior class and proposed a bike ride. The idea took off and, with more than 80 kids expected to participate, Zac realized they needed back-up. His friend Steve called the police, who arranged an escort. Zac’s mom invited her friend, the city’s Mayor Rob VerHeulen, who showed up for the event with donuts for the riders.
And, then, smiling and singing the school fight song, the band of merry seniors pedaled to school.
“It was a lot of fun,” Zac says. “It was a great experience.”
But then something unexpected happened. After hanging out and taking some pictures, the students started to go inside — but they were redirected to the performing arts center by a school official. “We got chewed out a little bit by our principal who said we were suspended and weren’t able to participate in the traditional senior walk, where we walk through the high school and say goodbye to our teachers and underclassmen,” Zac says. “She said they were going to investigate the prank more and some people might not walk at graduation. My heart kind of dropped, because it was my idea and I had a speech to give [at graduation]. It was really scary at first.”
Joshua Duggan, a board member of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition (GGRBC), was lobbying at the Michigan state capitol when he heard the news. Even before the local advocacy organization could respond, the community rallied behind Zac and his fellow students. In fact, the response backing biking was so strong that the principal quickly reversed course — and even apologized publicly.
“As evidenced by the overwhelming support for the students in the comments on the news articles, the huge attendance at the board meeting, and the written statement with an apology of sorts by the principal, most people in West Michigan seem to support what the students did,” Duggan says. “And I personally was impressed that the Walker Mayor stood by the students and did not waver in his support of their event.”
In hindsight, Zac says, keeping the ride a secret wasn’t the best tactic. “I felt bad for blindsiding the principal and superintendent, and looking back now, I would have told them we were doing it,” he says. “[At the board meeting], I apologized to them, but I told them I hope what we did this year becomes a tradition: that seniors, on their last day, ride their bikes to their high school.”
Aside from the controversy, though, the Kenowa Hills ride taps into another topic that’s receiving national buzz: the challenges — and in some cases, administrative prohibitions — that many students face in trying to ride to school. If you haven’t seen it yet, David Darlington’s recent article in Bicycling magazine is a must-read. For Duggan in Grand Rapids, Zac and his friends underlined the issues raised in Darlington’s piece and the need for safer routes to school.
“When it’s not safe for the kids to ride to school without a police escort, and when the principal states in her public response to one of the TV stations that she feared for the seniors because ‘I have two kids of my own. I’ve seen car accidents, even this school year right outside our student parking lot,’ it indicates there is a problem with the location of the school and its surrounding roads, because they were designed solely for motor vehicles,” Duggan says.
Zac agrees. He, for one, lives just one mile away but didn’t bike to high school because it didn’t seem safe on the fast-moving, high-volume streets. “We definitely have quite a big population around the school, so we could ride a bike if we wanted to, but it’s kind of dangerous,” he says. “That’s something I’d like to see changed.”
The good folks at GGRBC are still formulating their response and contemplating how to capitalize on the students’ energy and community support — and we’re putting on our thinking caps, too. In the meantime, though, Zac’s ride already inspired his fellow students. “I went back the next day and there were quite a lot of bikes,” he says. “A lot of underclassmen rode to school.”
Carolyn SzczepanskiCarolyn joined the League in March 2012, after two years at the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In addition to managing the League's blog, magazine and other communications, Carolyn organized the first National Women's Bicycling Summit and launched the League's newest program: Women Bike. Before she crossed over to advocacy, she was a professional journalist for nearly 10 years.