A rolling debate
As popularity of skate shoes soars, so do the safety concerns
From left: Thuy Nguyen, Darby McLaughlin, Cole Ryan, and Devin Connolly show off their Heelys. Many schools ban skating in the shoes. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)
Devin Connolly loves to walk and roll, or what she and her friends call ''heeling." Like a plane dropping down its landing gear, her size-9 sneakers pop out stealth wheels whenever she wants to glide at home, whiz on her Dorchester block, or slide on the smooth floors at the South Shore Plaza.
''We get to ride them and turn them into sneakers," Devin, 9, says of her black, white, and pink sneaker-skate hybrid. ''It saves me from being chased by my brothers. They totally look like real sneakers."
But Sharon Connolly is nervous about her daughter's favorite footwear. ''I am always afraid she is going to fall. I have my hesitations," says Connolly, a nursing supervisor who takes Devin to Pope John Paul II Park to skate with friends. She tries to get Devin to wear a helmet, but ''that is not going to happen with her. She is not allowed to skate on the street."
It's hard to miss kids seemingly floating on air as they speed by pedestrians, classmates, and traffic on their wheel-in-the-heel shoes known by the brand name Heelys. But while the sneakers are growing in popularity -- 2.5 million have been sold in the United States since they were introduced in 2000 -- so are concerns about their safety. Fearing head injuries or sprained ankles, some Boston-area schools and districts nationwide have banned the shoes because they don't want students darting like speedskaters in the hallways. This week a 12-year-old boy in skate shoes was fatally struck by a car in East Bridgewater as he crossed the street from the family mailbox.
Though police have not blamed the accident on the shoes, some parents are debating their safety.
''I know there was a horrible accident the other day, and my heart goes out to the mom," says Peggy McLaughlin of Dorchester, who bought a pair of Heelys for her 10-year-old daughter Darby last Christmas. She's allowed to go heeling only in parks, at home, or around Castle Island -- and not in parking lots.
A progression of the roller skate and rollerblades, Heelys have become the latest fad in footwear among elementary and middle school kids. Skating enthusiast Roger Adams invented them, inspired by his own desire for a shoe that would let him switch from walking to skating without having to change sneakers. The shoes, which come in children and adult sizes, cost between $60 and $100.
''You can disguise that you're not wearing them," says Darby McLaughlin, who likes to pull out her shoes' wheels to glide on her sidewalk or along the aisles at the Stop & Shop on Morrissey Boulevard.
But school is one place she and her classmates can't heel. Mary Russo, principal of the Richard J. Murphy Elementary School in Dorchester, requires students to remove the wheel from their sneakers before arriving on campus.
The Boston Public School system has no districtwide policy on skate shoes; spokesman Jonathan Palumbo says that decision is left to each school's principal. Other school districts such as Waltham and Cambridge don't have written policies on the sneakers, but principals have asked students to remove the wheels from their sneakers before coming to school.
Thuy Nguyen, 9, would like to wear hers to the Murphy school, but can't because of the ban. After seeing some of her Neponset neighbors whip and weave in the shoes, she wanted her own. Her parents gave her a pair as a gift for Vietnamese New Year. ''You can ride them in your home and anywhere, like in the malls," she says.
Heelys officials stress that children and young people should exercise caution when heeling around town. The company website, heelys.com, features a video on how to heel and strongly recommends users always wear protective gear, including a helmet and arm, knee, and wrist pads.
Charlie Beery, senior vice president of global sales for Texas-based Heelys, said he understands why schools wouldn't want the shoes worn on campus, and said the company has received a lot of attention about the product's safety concerns, especially since the East Bridgewater fatality.
''Our hearts go out to the family," he says. ''It certainly has brought more attention to the brand and the importance of kids paying attention on how to heel. If there are policies in place, be it in malls or in public, we want kids to adhere to the rules."
Johnny Diaz can be reached at email@example.com.