Freedom to ride: School board policy changed to allow young snowmobilers

Rockford Middle School- Center for Environmental Studies principal Amy Denneson is approached for many things. As figurehead for a school, she is contacted by students, staff, parents, and others on a daily basis. However, when RMS-CES student Brandt Patnode approached her a few months ago with what appeared to be a simple question, it would be weeks of calls and appointments before she had an answer for him.

Patnode is in a unique position. Though he is currently enrolled in the eighth grade, he also is over the qualifying age to transport himself to school. Not via car of course, but through his favorite form of winter transportation: his snowmobile, a Polaris Indy 600.

“It had been mentioned a couple times between my friends,” said Patnode, and after thinking about it, he tracked down Denneson to see if it was allowed. “I figured she was the person to ask.”

Denneson had no ready answer. By law, minors as young as 12 years old may complete a snowmobile safety certification program; but until they are 14 they must be accompanied by an adult on trails and cannot cross a road by themselves. High schoolers 14 or older have no problem getting a permission slip signed to drive and park their snowmobiles in the parking lot, but for students of age yet still in middle school like Patnode, there was no policy. “When [Brandt] brought forward the question ‘can we also snowmobile here,’ it kind of set us on a long road of research,” said Denneson.

‘Just one more person’

There was a lot to do before Denneson could give Patnode and his friends the go ahead. Law enforcement had to be contacted to ensure the legality of the young snowmobilers, an insurance company was needed to make language changes to the school policy, a permission slip had to be created to ensure students had completed safety training and had consulted their parents, school facilities maintenance had to approve the change so they could anticipate how the grounds would be affected and where the machines could be parked, and the school board had to vote in favor of an amended policy that specifically addressed middle school snowmobilers.

Denneson and staff were unsure of where to start. It didn’t help that middle schools in other local school districts had no similar policies to look to. “When I called around to find out if other middle schools did this they were like, ‘uh, no.’ They’d never even thought about it,” said Denneson.

Rockford eighth-grader Brandt Patnode shows the route he would take to school, a distance under 10 miles from his home in Corcoran. A Wright County ATV Specialist met with potential riders during school hours to discuss safety and best routes. (Sun staff photo by Alaina Rooker)
Rockford eighth-grader Brandt Patnode shows the route he would take to school, a distance under 10 miles from his home in Corcoran. A Wright County ATV Specialist met with potential riders during school hours to discuss safety and best routes. (Sun staff photo by Alaina Rooker)

Throughout the process, it was not difficult to keep Patnode involved. “We did updates, because I would see him coming down the hall with this pensive look on his face, like, ‘Is it a go?’” recalls Denneson, “And I would have to say, ‘No, there’s just one more person I need to speak with.”

As an educator, Denneson realized an opportunity to teach Patnode. “With schools, and I think just life in general, this was a really good lesson that it takes a lot of steps sometimes to get something that is seemingly simple, taken care of,” she said.

Among the calls and red tape Denneson had to go through, was to reach out to Wright County Deputy Jake Hermanson. Hermanson, on behalf of Wright County’s Recreation Services Division, not only agreed to help Denneson and administration understand the laws and ordinaces involved with youth snowmobiling, but also to come and speak to students interested in driving their snowmobiles to school.

He conducted a brief safety training, gave out a pamphlet on safety laws and maps to help plan the best routes. “Every city is different in terms of what can and can’t happen with snowmobiles,” said Hermanson’s colleague, sergeant Brian Johnson, noting some don’t allow snowmobiling at all. Through coming out and speaking to students, Johnson said problems are more likely to be minimized. Though students snowmobiliing to school must provide proof of a more formal certification, the extra training ensured that students on the road would be making safe decisions.

“Wright County really helped us. They’re amazing, so good to work with,” said Denneson of the collaboration. After the help from Wright County, staff had finally maneuvered all hoops except for the final one: the Rockford Board of Education.

When Denneson presented her work at the Jan. 18 meeting, including the proposed student handbook additions, policy amendments and new permission form, a few members of the board were reluctant. A few raised safety concerns, while others countered that if denied permission, students could park just outside of school grounds like had been done before at the high school. After learning of Wright County’s involvement, discussion among the Board changed, and they ultimately voted in favor of the changes.

Wait for weather

For now, snowmobiling to school is not in Patnode’s future, but its not due to lack of permission. “The weather hasn’t been that good. It was great a few years ago, but now we haven’t had too much snow.”

Outside of school, student Brandt Patnode likes tooling around on his 2015 Polaris Indy 600. Minnesota hasn’t seen the best snowmobiling weather the past few years, but he looks forward to a family sledding trip in Colorado this spring. (Photo courtesy of Brandt Patnode)
Outside of school, student Brandt Patnode likes tooling around on his 2015 Polaris Indy 600. Minnesota hasn’t seen the best snowmobiling weather the past few years, but he looks forward to a family sledding trip in Colorado this spring. (Photo courtesy of Brandt Patnode)

However, if asked how he would get to school, he has a different answer. He knows he needs to have a stock muffler, to cross roads and enter school property on the right side of the road and at no more than 10 miles per hour, and to have an alternative route depending on trail conditions. He knows there will be a designated area coned off near Ash and Bridge Street where he can finally park his Indy.

“It’s kind of the law,” Patnode said of finally being allowed to snowmobile to school. “I’m 14, and that’s the age you have to be to do it by yourself and cross roads. It’s pretty simple.”

Patnode certainly has a passion for snowmobiling, and like any true Minnesotan, prefers at least 8 inches, knows the correct way to pronounce Arctic Cat, and is absolutely confused as to what Alaskans mean when they say “snow machines.” Along with these characteristics, Patnode can add one more to his list: precedent setter.

“He set the example,” said Denneson. “Who knows if I’ll get a call in the future saying, ‘hey, I know you have a middle school students that can snowmobile to school, how does it go?’”