Schools respond to bus driver's case

Carroll officials defend firing woman in motion to dismiss her lawsuit

Praying initiated dispute

March 19, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

For three months, Carroll County school officials have wrung their hands over their inability to respond to a school bus driver's accusations that she was improperly disciplined, then fired for leading middle and high school students on her routes in prayer.

It was a personnel issue, and state law prohibits the disclosure of information from employees' or contractors' personnel files.

But the filing last week by driver Stella Tsourakis of a federal lawsuit, alleging that school officials violated her civil rights, paved the way for school officials to tell their version of a story that has garnered media attention and prompted hate mail and ministers' threats to school administrators.

In a 129-page motion to dismiss the suit, filed yesterday in U.S. District Court, school officials told their side. The motion portrays Tsourakis as a bus driver who was dismissed not for praying with students on Bus 139, but for speeding, running a stop sign and repeatedly changing her route without the permission or knowledge of school officials, including an unauthorized stop at a convenience store where Tsourakis allowed students to purchase snacks and soft drinks while she used a restroom.

She also, on more than one occasion, stopped the bus in a turn lane near North Carroll High School between her afternoon high school and middle school routes, permitting her 17-year-old son, who is allowed to ride the bus with her, to smoke outside the bus, according to the court papers.

School officials also allege that she tuned her bus radio to a station that exposed 11- and 12-year- old middle-schoolers to inappropriate discussions and jokes, became inappropriately chummy with her students despite warnings that she maintain a professional relationship with them and created an environment where students felt pressured to pray with classmates who continued saying the Lord's Prayer after school officials warned Tsourakis that she could not lead them in the daily recitation.

"No one ever said she couldn't pray and no one said, `Kids, don't pray,'" said Edmund J. O'Meally, the school board's attorney. "But the free exercise rights of somebody like Ms. Tsourakis on duty time don't go so far as to carry over and cross into the establishment of religion.

"While she has the right to pray to herself - of course, no one could take [that] away from her - but when she's in the driver's seat and doing her job, she can't let her right to the free exercise of religious beliefs cross over into the establishment of religion," he added. "That's exactly what she has done, exactly what we told her she couldn't do and exactly what her lawsuit claims she has the right to do. Not only does she not have [the] right to do it, but we have the obligation to make sure she doesn't do it."

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 of Sept. 11, posting the words to the Lord's Prayer 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 route began to pray, too.

Last week, after Tsourakis was dismissed as a county school bus driver for what school officials at the time would describe only as safety infractions not related to prayer, the bus driver and the parents of six students filed suit, saying the bus driver and passengers should have the right to pray together.

Tsourakis' attorney, Steven L. Tiedemann, countered that the school system's filing is typical for an employer attempting to find nonreligious reasons to justify firing an employee who was dismissed for her religious beliefs.

"You get somebody who stands up for their rights and you don't fire them for the reason you're not allowed to fire them for - that being the free exercise of religion," he said. "You just put them on a blacklist and follow them around for five months and take down every notation of anything she's done wrong and call her dangerous."

Tiedemann maintained that school officials would find the same types of transgressions - from tweaking a bus route to driving 5 mph to 10 mph over the speed limit, as Tsourakis is accused of doing - by repeatedly tailing almost any bus driver and holding him to the same level of scrutiny by which Tsourakis has been judged.

Tiedemann has 14 days to respond to O'Meally's motion. He said he intends to file his response sooner, with a motion for an injunction on the school system's decision to revoke Tsourakis's certification to drive a Carroll school bus.

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