On the return leg of their field trip to a local theater production of "A Tale of Two Cities," a busload of Salt Lake City-area elementary school students were unexpectedly shuttled to a federal courthouse to witness protesters demonstrate in support of an environmental activist standing trial for pending criminal charges. While bus driver Ryan Pleune claims his bosses at the school district were "secretly, quietly happy" with his actions, the school district fired him Wednesday after parents complained about the unauthorized impromptu side trip.
Pleune is a staunch supporter of Tim DeChristopher, a 29-year-old environmental activist accused of purposefully making bids he couldn't pay at a federal oil and gas drilling lease auction. While the court considers DeChristopher's case, fellow environmentalists -- including Pleune -- have gathered outside the courthouse to voice their support.
After attending the protests Monday, Pleune said he felt it was a "great coincidence" that his driving assignment Tuesday was transporting a group of fifth-graders to see the play.
"I thought yesterday, 'Man, it would be cool if the kids could come and see this, but I have an assignment to do,'" he said. "I get people to places on time, I follow rules, and I wanted to make sure I do that."
As students returned to the bus after the play, Pleune decided to show them a different view of "revolution" by taking them to see DeChristopher's protest rally. "Then I said, you know, I'm just going to go by the courthouse … I'm just going to do something and beg forgiveness later," he recalled.
The chaperoning teachers did not object to the diverted return to the school after Pleune assured them he would have the students back in time for their scheduled lunch. Pulling the school bus up to the protest, he said the students rolled down their windows and listened to the protesters' singing for a few minutes.
“I’m an educator. I’m a trained teacher. I taught at East High School for three years, I taught at City Academy for one,” Pleune told KCPW. “And so as an educator, I wanted to share some relevant learning and some real life experiences to the students. I wanted to show them that peaceful demonstration is a right in our democracy.”
Pleune says he shares DeChristopher's beliefs and wanted to sacrifice the way he thinks DeChristopher has — even if it means losing his job over his actions.
"I'm willing to share in (DeChristpoher's) risk and embarrassment," he said. "Civil disobedience didn't end with Rosa Parks and it didn't end with Civil Rights. It's in our city. ... I brought them to show them revolution means different things for different people and that for these people it means singing, joy and resolve."
On Wednesday, the school district announced that Pleune had been fired.
“The actions he took were his own actions. They were not approved by the school or by the district. Both those entities do not condone what he did,” said school district spokesman Jason Olsen. “The students were on a field trip to go see a play at the Hale Centre Theatre, they were not on a field trip to go see a political rally downtown.”