GRAND ISLAND, N.Y. – Just before her afternoon run, school bus driver Julianne Thompson (search) was reading an interview with Mel Gibson (search), in which the actor spoke out against stem cell research.
When her elementary school passengers hopped aboard for the ride home, Thompson decided to share what was still fresh in her mind.
"I have a factoid for you," she told the 7- to 10-year-olds over the public address system.
Then Thompson told the students what she'd read — that in 23 years, embryonic stem cell research hadn't produced a single human cure.
She encouraged the students to tell their parents.
Thompson was fired a week later.
District officials in this northern suburb of Buffalo told the driver that her Nov. 1 conversation was inappropriate and that parents had complained. She said she was also accused of running an unruly bus, something she strongly denies.
"I learned that free speech is definitely not free," said Thompson, 42, a mother of four who worked for the district for 2 1/2 years.
Superintendent Thomas Ramming said personnel policy prevented him from discussing specifics of Thompson's case, but that in general, employees are told that discussions of political or religious points of view should be confined to an appropriate setting, such as a classroom where different viewpoints can be presented.
"Individuals who are employees can advocate a point of view," he said, "just not with students while they're on the job."
Thompson said there is nothing in her contract that prohibits her from expressing facts or opinions and that it wasn't unusual for her to share tidbits with students. She is considering legal action, saying officials have yet to explain to her why her comments were inappropriate.
"I said it in language (kids) could understand," said Thompson, who founded the Erie County chapter of a group called New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. The statewide organization describes itself as a political lobbying group and resource center for the Christian community.
"It was very simple," she said, "that we do this research, that we've spent 23 years and billions of dollars and we haven't found a single cure."
She told the students to tell their parents because, "I thought everybody should know," she said.
"It wasn't as though I was talking about the gruesome procedure of partial birth abortion or something," she said. "I certainly know where to draw the line."
Robert Peters, a director of the National Association of Pupil Transportation, said he believes bus drivers should refrain from such discussions with students.
"That's not what they're there for. They're there to get the kids to and from school safely and that's what they should be concentrating on," said Peters, whose organization helps develop student transportation policy.
Jeanne-Noel Mahoney, regional director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (search), said she was unaware of any similar case where a bus driver was fired over a discussion with students.