By Terry Dean
With some District 97 schools located in high vehicle traffic areas, administrators have encouraged students to walk to their schools versus riding their bikes due to safety concerns.
There's no district policy prohibiting students from riding, which many do. But rather, the principals have autonomy concerning enforcing bike safety procedures, says Supt. Albert Roberts.
Still, some Oak Parkers would like that practice softened to allow more cycling by kids and adults around the schools. A rather robust discussion about cycling and student safety occurred at the Oct. 22 school board meeting.
Two residents, Mike Stewart, a D97 parent, and Elizabeth Rexford, a former D97 teacher, spoke at the meeting, urging the district to be more "bike friendly." Both are avid bikers and talked about the need for more bike racks at the schools. Concerning childhood obesity, they said the district could address that problem by encouraging more students to ride their bikes.
"More and more people are riding bikes these days because it's better for their health," said Rexford, noting that she doesn't own a car and cycles everywhere in town, as does her husband.
Roberts and the board took up the bike topic later in the meeting.
Some schools, like Longfellow and Irving, Roberts said, have more car congestion while others do not. He said the district is addressing obesity through physical education and its Wellness program. Students and parents are encouraged to walk to school, Roberts said. He also backed the current safety practices at the schools.
"There is a safety concern at some of our buildings that are on busy roads and getting kids to and from school safely. That said, we have picked up the pace with bicycle training at our schools; it's part of our phys ed program," Roberts said. "We are always interested in building the capacity of our kids to come to school. It's true that we haven't given much thought to, perhaps, having bicycle racks at every school."
One reason for that, Roberts said, is the number of bike thefts at the buildings. Thefts are especially rampant at Gwendolyn Brooks and Percy Julian middle schools, said board member James Gates. There's been at least nine bike thefts at the middle schools in the last year, according to D97 spokesperson Chris Jasculca.
Roberts said the district has looked into building bike sheds at some schools due to thefts. Adding more bike racks isn't a bad idea either, he said. But fostering a more bike-friendly community, Roberts said, involves all the jurisdictions in Oak Park.
Some board members, however, took a different view of bikes and safety concerning the schools.
Graham Brisben said the district this year installed outdoor security cameras at the schools that could help spot bike thefts. Board member Peter Traczyk stressed that bike riding has become the norm and should be supported by the district. But as for bike safety procedures, Traczyk said he'd leave that up to the administration.
Brisben also questioned the district's jurisdiction concerning discouraging bike riding
"By what right do we claim to allow or disallow someone to bike to school? Somebody's going to get to school how they wish; it's outside of our control."
"I do think, honestly, that there are principals who are more comfortable because of where their school sits, in relation to the traffic in their community, than others, who I think have a right to be concerned about that," Roberts said. "So, it's a little more complicated than it appears on the surface, but we have been working toward building a community of cycling that's more acceptable. We're trying to do it in a measured way that provides the highest degree of safety for our kids."
D97 board gives go-ahead for AC, accessibility assessment
District 97's new architectural firm, STR Partners, will begin assessing the district's buildings to measure accessibility issues and will also consider options for air conditioning in schools. The D97 Board of Education has given the firm the go-ahead to study improvements needed in the buildings. Air-conditioning concerns spiked in September when temperatures reached higher than normal levels, causing some classrooms to overheat. That, in turn, got some parents hot under the collar for what they claim was the district's poor response to the problem.
Concerning accessibility, an internal D97 committee of faculty and parents looked at building needs last spring, finding that some schools are better equipped for special needs individuals than others. STR will study those findings as part of its assessment.