Bus driver suspended by Ecker

Lawyer charges First Amendment violation by schools

`To the Supreme Court'

Superintendent says action `is not because of praying'

Carroll County

February 27, 2002|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

A Carroll County school bus driver, reprimanded in December after she led her young passengers in the Lord's Prayer after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has been suspended - but not for praying.

Stella N. Tsourakis, 37, of Manchester said she was told at the end of her shift Monday afternoon that she was suspended, but she said she didn't know why.

Her attorney, Steven L. Tiedemann, said he plans to file a federal lawsuit by Monday alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights - perhaps a class action to include at least two children who want to pray on the bus.

"I can tell you she was suspended, but not because of praying," said Charles I. Ecker, Carroll's interim school superintendent, who made the decision.

He said he could not discuss the matter further because it is a private personnel matter, but the school board's attorney is developing a form that Tsourakis or any other affected individual could sign that would allow the school system to answer such questions.

"Then, we could tell you why she was suspended," Ecker said.

"There are two separate issues here," said Tiedemann. "One is, I believe they're essentially trying to come up with some nonreligious reason to let her go. But the more important reason is what started the whole thing all along, which is whether she has the right to pray, whether they acted appropriately to deny her constitutional right to pray," he said.

When the issue of the prayers erupted in December, Tsourakis said she had been moved by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and sometime after she began driving full time in mid-October, told the Shiloh Middle School passengers on her Finksburg route that they would recite the Lord's Prayer.

She said she stopped leading the prayer after she was reprimanded by school officials Nov. 16 and warned that she could lose her job. But the kids have continued to say the prayer - later joined by the students on her North Carroll High School route. She said the prayer is recited after the bus pulls into school and stops, with the bus door open to allow anyone who doesn't want to participate to leave.

In December, she was reprimanded again, for having a cross and other student artwork on the bus, she said. Tsourakis was upset after that meeting, and read from letters of support she had received.

Yesterday, she said her bus is empty of crosses and the kids' artwork, but the children still pray.

"I don't know what to say any more. I think it's ridiculous. They need to go after the bus drivers who smoke on the bus," said Tsourakis, a mother of three. She said she has been monitored by school officials.

"Steve and I are going to take it to the Supreme Court. I'm done with them," she said. "Not only I'm being harassed, but the kids have been harassed - questioning whether I gave them candy, whether I go joy riding, whether there are other kids on the bus.

Tiedemann said he recently became what is called an "ally," or allied attorney, of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative organization dedicated to "winning the legal battle for family values, religious freedom and the sanctity of human life," according to its Web site. The group trained him and it pays the costs of such lawsuits, Tiedemann said, so he will charge no fee. He also teaches college courses in corporate finance and managerial economics.

On Feb. 20, Tiedemann hand-delivered a three-page letter to Ecker, giving the superintendent until the close of business yesterday to act upon his demands or he would take the matter to federal court.

In the tersely written letter, Tiedemann demanded that any adverse comments be removed from Tsourakis' file; that her constitutional rights not be violated; that her right to pray on the bus and talk to the children be restored - and publicized - and, "finally, the campaign of hyper-monitoring of Ms. Tsourakis must stop" and "can only be interpreted as retaliation."

Ecker responded with a one-page letter Monday, saying he would not remove anything from the file and would continue to honor the driver's constitutional rights, while denying any "hyper-monitoring" of her.

Tsourakis said she returned in her bus to her employer's lot Monday afternoon, where a "nasty" school transportation official tried to talk to her.

"So I wouldn't go mouth off, so I wouldn't say something that was wrong, I said, `Why don't you call my attorney?' and he said, `Well, you're suspended from the bus,'" she said. She called Tiedemann.

But what brought them to the point of a lawsuit, Tiedemann said, "was Stella's perception that they were hyper-monitoring her - watching every move she made." On one occasion, he said, she was admonished for driving five miles above the posted speed limit.

"This is what organizations sometimes do: They find someone who is a thorn in their side in one sense, and they try to get rid of them. We believe anecdotally from discussions with other bus drivers that they were not being monitored to the same extent," Tiedemann said.

Bus drivers are not employees of the school system. Ecker said all drivers are monitored periodically to see that they obey speed and other traffic laws - and new drivers more so. But he said: "All bus drivers are treated equally. She was not treated any differently than any other new bus driver."

Tsourakis will keep her job as a driver for Schaffer's Mulch and Bus Service, and yesterday handled a charter trip downtown for a Baltimore County private school.

"She's still employed here," said Susan Reter, office manager for the bus company.

Tiedemann said the school system is harassing Tsourakis for her Christian beliefs, while non-Christian drivers are not subjected to the same scrutiny. He said Tsourakis "has her full First Amendment rights to free expression."

But Ecker said such sweeping constitutional debates might be premature because the suspension has not been appealed to Carroll's school board.

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