It was a compelling human-interest story that created a national buzz: Broward school bus driver Rossana Lucas faced a potential five-day suspension for answering her cellphone while driving. Her defense: Her son, a U.S. Marine, was calling from Iraq.
Superintendent Robert Runcie, touched by Lucas’ explanation, put her punishment on pause while he investigated. School Board members, meanwhile, were flooded with angry e-mails from the public, questioning how the school district bureaucracy could be so insensitive.
But it turns out Lucas made the whole thing up.
On Tuesday, Lucas was at Broward’s school district headquarters to accept a 10-day suspension, double her initial punishment. She quickly mumbled an apology: "I voluntarily agree to the 10-day suspension ... and I know that day, it was not my son. Thank you."
She then rushed for the exits, avoiding the TV cameras that trailed closed behind. A pack of reporters staked out the school district exits for roughly 30 minutes to track her down, to no avail.
School Board members were clearly shocked by the strange turn of events. Board member Robin Bartleman recalled that when she first heard Lucas’ story last month, “I was so sad...my heart broke for her.”
“We all came to her defense,” Bartleman said. “This is not the outcome I expected — at all.”
In the last few weeks, a school district investigation revealed that Lucas’ phone call wasn’t from her son. The bus Lucas was driving — like many in Broward — is equipped with video cameras. In that video, Lucas is seen quickly answering the phone and telling someone she’ll call them back. There’s no motherly affection, friendly banter or discussion of Iraq.
The video also shows Lucas picking up a fellow bus driver at an unauthorized stop — another no-no. The two women are heard discussing some private side business.
At least one aspect of Lucas’ story checked out: There were no children on board at the time.
Whether she has a son serving in Iraq was unconfirmed.
When the school district discovered the bus driver’s story didn’t check out, Lucas was told her punishment would be doubled and she had to formally apologize — otherwise, she would be fired.
Runcie acknowledged he could have been harsher and sought termination.
“We’re giving her a second chance to do the right thing and conduct herself as a professional,” Runcie said. “We’ve taken the high road.”
The superintendent said the Lucas case is symbolic of a larger issue: People often make claims before the School Board (or via social media) that aren’t rooted in fact.
“You’d be surprised at how much gets made up, that I deal with on a regular basis,” he said.
Runcie chuckled when talking about how much venom the school district received over the Lucas case — even though Runcie and board members had been sympathetic to the woman. One e-mail to board members, written by a man named Michael Todaro, began “Look you bunch of robotically programed [sic] Democrat idiots! There is such a thing as discretion!”
Although Broward’s School Board is a non-partisan office, most board members (though not all) are Democrats.
Other protest e-mails were more personal, such as the one from Tim Sims, who wrote “Having just finished 26 years in the military, I can attest to the challenges that today’s troops face in making contact with family from some austere locations.”
Going forward, Runcie urged the public to give the district the benefit of the doubt. In personnel matters especially, Runcie said, decisions may be based on information that the public is not aware of.
“They should understand that we’re doing the very best that we can to hold people accountable,” Runcie said.