Driver suing school officials

She contests firing, asserts right to pray with students on bus

Several parents join suit

March 12, 2002|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Stella N. Tsourakis, a Carroll County bus driver who lost that job after leading students in the Lord's Prayer after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to be reinstated, claiming school officials violated her constitutional rights and those of her passengers.

The parents of six students have joined Tsourakis in the suit against county school officials, saying the bus driver and passengers should have the right to pray together. In 10 counts, they allege school officials violated their civil and First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, association, assembly and exercise of religion.

"For faithful Christians, like the plaintiffs, prayer is often and properly a communal experience and is to be shared with others [Christians and non-Christians] at every opportunity," states the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. It also notes that President Bush had asked for prayers in the aftermath of the attacks.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages, said Steven L. Tiedemann, a Westminster attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a national Christian civil rights organization that will pay the legal fees.

In addition to recertification and reinstatement, Tsourakis, 37, who lives near Manchester, is seeking lost wages and a clean personnel file.

Tsourakis began driving for Carroll public schools in October and soon after decided to lead her Shiloh Middle School passengers in a prayer for the victims, posting the words inside the bus. She was told to stop - and did, she said - but the pupils continued to say the prayer without her. Then, she said, students on her North Carroll High School route began to pray, too.

Tsourakis was told Friday that she could not drive a bus for county public schools anymore because she had been decertified after a series of disciplinary run-ins with school officials. She remains an employee of Schaffer's Mulch and Bus Co. near Westminster driving private charters, according to its office manager.

School officials said their actions had to do with students' safety, not prayer, but said they could not discuss a personnel matter further unless Tsourakis signed a form giving her permission. They said they had not seen the suit.

But Charles I. Ecker, the county's interim school superintendent, said, "I'm glad she filed. Now the truth can come out. She hasn't signed anything so we can talk. I'm anxious so we can get our side of the story out."

Tsourakis and Tiedemann claim a series of meetings, two reprimands, a suspension and finally her decertification for supposed safety violations arose from the prayer controversy. They contend school officials were harassing her and looking for any nonreligious excuse to get rid of her.

The actions for which she was criticized or disciplined included: stopping to use a convenience store restroom; reversing her route because she said she wanted to drop off a sick child first; posting a cross and students' letters and artwork inside the bus; pulling over at an unsafe spot; driving 5 mph above the speed limit; and insubordination.

Ecker said parents had called to complain about Tsourakis' driving, but not the prayer issue.

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