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Hernando blogger's 'test' of bus driver draws criticism

A screenshot of Tom Lemons' website, Real News Real Fast.
A screenshot of Tom Lemons' website, Real News Real Fast.
Published Mar. 7, 2018

A local news blogger is in the hot seat after his attempt to "test" the Hernando County School District by posing as an unauthorized person trying to pick up an elementary school student at a bus stop last week.

Floyd Thomas Lemons III published a story about the incident on his blog, Real News Real Fast, on Jan. 18. The headline: "RNRF Attempts to Abduct Child From School Bus, Driver Passes the Test."

The creator and sole writer for the blog, Lemons told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday that he executed the "sting operation" to investigate his readers' complaints about school bus drivers. From those readers, the story got praise, he said.

But many others — parents, and school district and law enforcement officials — have raised questions.

"I know you believe in your civic and professional responsibility to report on issues affecting public safety, but there was no incident that warranted this type of challenge," district spokeswoman Karen Jordan said in an email to Lemons on Jan. 19.

Lemons' story was accompanied by a video that showed him standing on the edge of a neighborhood street as a school bus stopped in front of him. A young girl walked down the bus steps, then turned around to walk back up when she saw him.

"Who are you?" an unidentified school bus driver asked Lemons. "Are you on my list?"

Lemons said no, and the driver refused to let the girl go with him.

"Good job. … I'm actually a reporter," Lemons told the driver. "You did the right thing."

Lemons told the Times his idea for the "test" came from a prior conversation with the student's mother, Kali Rosario. She was worried about school bus security, he said, so the two devised a plan to evaluate the system themselves. While Lemons walked up to the bus, Rosario and her son, who videotaped the experiment, stood nearby.

"It wasn't an aggressive or violent kind of kidnapping scenario," Lemons said, noting that the girl was in on the plan. "If it went beyond conversation … I would have never let it get out of hand."

Rosario told the Times: "Tests like these are warranted and should even be repeated, and it should be in our rights as parents in this county to do so."

Because the child and her mother were participants in the charade, it's "difficult to prove that there is a crime," said Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis. Still, he disapproves of what happened, calling them "ill-advised and reckless."

"If a well-meaning citizen — an innocent bystander — assumed it was real, they might have used serious force to stop it," Nienhuis said.

Lemons called his article a "positive news story" for the district.

Ralph Leath, director of transportation for the district, disagreed.

"It wasn't positive because of how else it could have played out," he told the Times.

Lemons suffered harsh criticism beneath posts of his story on Facebook and his blog. Parents questioned his methods and told him he had "no business" conducting the test.

"This was not right on so many levels," Facebook user Debbie Cronk Hagan Frier wrote. "The school district should be the ones testing their bus drivers, not Real News Real Fast. That's just crossing a line!"

It is not clear whether Lemons has any formal journalism training. Neither his website nor his Facebook page lists any.

Lemons said his undercover "test" was "not out of the realm of journalism," and he plans to do more on various topics.

University of Florida journalism professor Kim Walsh-Childers pointed to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which says reporters should work to "balance the public's need for information against potential harm or discomfort." Lemons' reporting, she said, opened up the driver and other students on the bus to possible fear and trauma.

"There are lots of people writing really interesting blogs," she said, "but just because you call yourself a journalist doesn't mean you are one."

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.