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Back to school US style - police hit Florida kids with hefty first day fines for not wearing cycle helmets

Kids from poor families reported fearful of telling parents they've incurred fine as unintended consequence of well-meaning law kicks in...

The kids went back to school in Florida this week, and for some 13-year-olds that meant a first day brush with the sheriff, and a fine for not wearing a cycle helmet on the school run.

In a week when there has been an awful lot of discussion on this side of the Atlantic
about the root causes of the civil disorder that has plagued the UK in recent days, including a lack of respect for the authorities and the police in particular, the story from Florida shows how a well-intentioned law meant to protect children might have the unintended consequence of alienating kids who are already marginalised.

The law in question is requires children aged below 16 to wear a cycle helmet while cycling on the public highway, which the Lee County School District has also incorporated into its code of conduct, meaning that children below 16 must wear one while cycling, or a passenger on a bike, on school property.

Adam Torocco, aged 13, was one of four schoolchildren to be cited by a Lee County Sheriff's Office school resource officer on Monday, reports The youngster received a $57 citation.

Sgt David Velez of the sheriff’s office confirmed that tickets had been issued at other schools this year, without being able to quantify how many, and insisted: "We're not cracking down."

He continued: "These are safety rules in place that should be enforced all the time. Sometimes school resource officers focus on something else, but this is something they're always looking for."

However, the teenager’s father, Mark Torocco, claims that a warning should have been issued first.

"We admit guilt. He should have been wearing a helmet," he explained. "I just believe the deputy should have gone about it in a different manner.

"(The citation) just left a poor taste in the kids' mouths. I listen to them and they don't like the cops.

“They want to stay away from them. The sheriff's department spends a lot of money on public relations in trying to get the youth. I think this undermines everything they do," he added.

Sgt Velez said that deputies could at their own discretion decide to warn children instead of issuing tickets, but said that the four students given fines on Monday had ignored the law in the past.

While Mr Torocco says he is able to pay his son’s fine, he points out that others are not in such a fortunate stuation, giving the example of another family whose son received a ticket.

"It's a family with a single father trying to raise a child. They don't have 50 bucks," he said. "The boy is scared to come home with the ticket."

"Our school resource officers are there and available to speak to students about this," insisted SgtVelez, adding that school resource officers were able to provide bike safety information for students, as well as helping them find safety equipment such as helmets. "A lot of times they'll try to get that safety item for students for free," he added.

Joe Donzelli, school district spokesman for the district, said :"Our focus is always on student safety, including the proper use of helmets when riding a bike." reported that 196 children aged below 15 die in cycling accidents in the US each year, with a further 8,900 admitted to hospital, according to the Children’s Safety Network. There was no mention of how many of those fatalities or other injuries involved children not wearing cycle helmets, or how many of those might have been prevented had they been doing so.

While organisations such as the CTC and Sustrans firmly oppose any measures to introduce helmet compulsion in the UK, and combined to counter a recent private member’s bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Jersey does have such legislation now for the under-16s, and pressure groups such as the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust are campaigning to make helmets compulsory for British kids.

But leaving aside for a moment the well-worn arguments for and against compulsion, is it right that a law aimed at protecting children while undertaking the innocent activity of riding a bike, for many of us our first real taste of freedom, should result in a child being fearful of going home and telling their parents that they’ve received a fine, and potentially setting them against authority figures such as police officers?

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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