When two Centennial High School students reported overhearing a school bus driver use a racial slur, county school officials suspended two drivers -- one because of mistaken identity and another who was reinstated Friday after waiting two weeks to clear her name.
County police, called in by Principal Sylvia S. Pattillo, reported that the students' accounts were "very vague." The students told police they overheard the word "nigger" but were unable to give the context or repeat the complete sentence, police spokesman Sgt. Gary L. Gardner said.
Gardner said the police found no evidence of a crime and closed the books on the incident.
Transportation Supervisor David C. Drownsaid confidentiality rules barred him from saying whether he found the students' accusation unfounded in deciding to reinstate driver Dorothy "Dot" Trahan of Ellicott City.
"I wouldn't want this ever to happen to anyone else, what they put me through," Trahan said. She believes the accusation was in retaliation for her reporting misbehavior on her bus by a black male student.
Both Trahan and driver M. Joan Baugher of Ellicott City, who was suspended for one day and then reinstated when school officials discovered their mistake, say they feel they were treated as guilty until proven innocent.
Drown said he was just following standard procedure by suspending the drivers until the allegation could be investigated. School board policy states that removing a driver before investigating is at the discretion of the transportation director. Drown said that in his 12 years of experience, allegations of child abuse or racial slurs have been dealt with by immediate suspension pending resolution.
Trahan was suspended April 10, one day after she filed a misconduct report on a black male student who rides her bus. She said the student was harassing other students. When she told him to stop, she said, he began flicking a rope or towel -- she could not tell precisely from her rearview mirror -- against the seat.
When the student got off, Mrs. Trahan said sheasked for his name, telling him she planned to report him. She said he refused to identify himself, and instead replied with a vulgar expression.
Trahan returned to school late Thursday afternoon, April 9, and filed a misconduct report. Assistant Principal William Davis identified the student from her description, she said.
The following morning, Drown notified Baugher that she was suspended after two students reported overhearing her use a racial slur. She denied using any racial slur.
Centennial Principal Pattillo reported Baugher as the offending driver to county police, who contacted her that morning. Baugher, a 23-year veteran driver, said she found the police interview frightening. She said she understood the officer to say she wouldbe arrested, which was an apparent misunderstanding.
Pattillo declined to discuss why she called police or why she failed to notify police later that Baugher had been misidentified. Sgt. Gardner confirmed that police were not notified of the error or told that another driver had been suspended.
Drown and Director of Transportation GlennJ. Johnson said they would not have notified police over an alleged racial slur. School system spokeswoman Patti P. Caplan said Pattillo believed she was following proper procedure in calling the police.
Baugher was waiting at home, fearing arrest, on Friday afternoon, April 10. Instead, Drown's secretary called to say she had been cleared. Baugher insisted on speaking to Drown, who told her, "We made a mistake."
Drown said he discovered the error when Pattillo referred to the alleged author of the slur as the driver of Bus 184. Drown knewthat Baugher drove Bus 205, Trahan 184.
"It's had me upset," Baugher said. "If two kids can lie and get you in this kind of trouble, the job's not worth keeping."
After the error was discovered, Drownsuspended Trahan. He said he referred the matter to Human Relations Director Kathleen Griffin, who was on vacation during spring break, the week of April 13. In her absence, Walter Caldwell, principal on special assignment, interviewed the students who made the accusation.
Caldwell didn't talk to the drivers. "We didn't ask him to," Johnson said. "The police were doing that." Trahan said she was contacted by police only late last week, after they learned of the misidentification. She was not contacted by the human relations staff, and her first opportunity to tell her story was a conference with Drown Thursday, she said.
Trahan was angry and frustrated at being idled from her job and waiting two weeks for a chance to defend herself. Asked by Drown to remain available during spring break, she and her husband canceled a trip to Rhode Island to visit their grandchildren.
"They don't know what they put us through," she said. "Nights I paced the floor, waiting for phone calls that never came through."