Portland Public Schools (PPS) has presented a trio of options to an atheist parent who pulled his children off their school bus after they told him the bus driver encouraged Christian singing and prayer.
The parent, Tim Bartholomew, moved with his children to the East Columbia neighborhood in January and enrolled his children in first and second grade at Faubion School.
Shortly after the move, there were issues. Bartholomew’s youngest child reported the new bus driver and his assistant would “talk and sing about God and Jesus.” Bartholomew called Faubion to complain about the behavior, but didn’t get a meaningful response.
Eventually, after Bartholomew’s oldest child broke bus rules to record a video of the driver singing Christian songs on the bus route, Bartholomew contacted the Oregon Department of Education (ODE).
PPS does not directly employ bus drivers, but instead contracts them through a company called First Student. After an ODE official met with officials from PPS, Bartholomew learned that his April complaint about the bus driver engaging in religious activity was not the first the district had received—they’d also received a complaint about the same driver, following a field trip in February.
During the course of its investigation into the driver, the school district also reviewed footage from the bus from seven different days during the spring. In an email to Bartholomew, an ODE official wrote that PPS would request that the driver be removed from district routes at the next report of his engaging in religious activity and that a PPS official would be in touch to discuss next steps.
The ODE official also noted no evidence to support the notion that the district was engaging in religious activity in violation of state law, and that there was “evidence to support the contention that the bus driver is acting apart from the district, not in concert with it.”
Brandon Coonrod, PPS’ assistant director of student transportation, contacted Bartholomew on May 18 to discuss next steps.
In an email obtained by the Mercury, Coonrod wrote that the district does not normally include parents in its decision-making processes regarding personnel, he wanted to give Bartholomew the opportunity “to do what you truly think is best for your children and community.”
Coonrod presented three potential options for further action to Bartholomew: the first was to reassign the driver and assistant to another route before the end of the current school year. The second option was to leave the driver on the route, but review recordings from several random days to ensure that he was no longer engaging in any proselytizing behavior. The final option was to remove the bus driver from the route after the conclusion of the school year.
Coonrod seemed to suggest that option number one, the immediate removal of the driver from the route, could be unpopular.
“I know the driver didn't understand the severity of his actions and was very remorseful for putting himself and his company in the spotlight in such a way,” Coonrod wrote. “I don’t believe he will be doing this any more. The thing I fear from this course of action is that the community that he knows so closely will be very upset.”
Coonrod reiterated his concern about possible “community backlash” in his analysis of option number three, which would be to reassign the driver following the conclusion of the year.
“This might be a good option if your children don't feel comfortable riding the bus with the driver and aid but also don't want to ask that he be moved to a new route immediately,” Coonrod wrote. “Again, I’m thinking of any possible community backlash and trying to avoid it for your family. I would hope it isn't something we have to worry about but I just want to think of all possible outcomes.”
The suggestion that community members might be upset if the driver were removed from the route frustrated Bartholomew, who wrote in an email to the Mercury that it felt like an example of the district prioritizing the feelings of non-atheists over his children.
“All of this, to us, is saying they treat the proselytizing Christian guy better than the atheist family,” Bartholomew wrote. “That seems like favorable treatment. We don't believe that the school district or First Student Inc takes this seriously and are looking at other options.”
Bartholomew wrote that he doesn’t particularly like any of the options PPS has proposed and wants to see the district take more drastic action.
“We want the bus driver removed from the route,” he wrote. “But also, we don’t want him on any other route. Since there was already an incident before ours in February, reported by another student, it’s unlikely he gets the point and really should be let go.”
It’s a situation Bartholomew, who co-founded a nonprofit called Rational Atheists United, is particularly sensitive to. It also raises broader questions about the influence of Christianity in a city where a plurality of residents identify as nonreligious and the importance of intent in evaluating the actions of a person in the bus driver’s position.
A PPS spokesperson confirmed that the investigation into the driver is complete but did not comment on any course of action the district may be taking.
Meanwhile, Bartholomew said the situation has been hard on his family—that his children are concerned about expressing their own beliefs and that they’ve had to miss school days when he’s been unable to drive them because of his work schedule.
“They are unhappy about the situation and hate being treated differently because they don't believe in magic and make-believe,” Bartholomew wrote. “I believe… it’s discrimination or at least we are being treated as less legitimate citizens for being outliers and not simply conforming.”