RALEIGH — Wake County's family-friendly, slightly nerdy image got a makeover this week, thanks to noisy accusations of resegregation and images of protester-toting police at school board meetings.
From "The Today Show" to the Los Angeles Times to The Economist, media around the world have been spreading the tale of the Wake County school board's 5-4 decision Tuesday to ditch the 140,000-student system's policy of supporting economic diversity in favor of a neighborhood-based system. During the nine-hour-plus meeting, the divided board heard accusations of racism during a public comment period and loud chants from a group of hallway protesters. Three protesters were arrested.
"Busing to end in Wake County, N.C. Goodbye, school diversity?" blared a headline in this week's issue of the Christian Science Monitor.
Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said it's time for county commissioners, who provide a significant portion of the system's budget, to "step in and take control of this disorderly situation."
Meeker, who is married to school board member Anne McLaurin, is among the supporters of the diversity policy who say the new school board majority is tarnishing Wake's national reputation.
"It's putting Wake County in a very bad light and making people have second thoughts about coming here," Meeker said of the recent national attention.
Supporters of the new board blame the negative publicity on outside agitators - one of the protest organizers was from Durham and two of the people arrested were from outside Wake County. The one Raleigh resident who was arrested has a lengthy history of arrests at protests on behalf of liberal causes.
"You've got a lot of people who are paid political agitators who don't even live in Wake County," said Joey Stansbury, a local conservative blogger who supports the new board majority. "A lot of the people who are shouting about the issue aren't representative of the true desires of Wake County."
Elena Everett, community media director with the left-leaning Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, said the protest of college and high school students was merited by the new board majority's swift action to set aside long-established Wake policies.
"I think you've got to leave all options on the table when you are dealing with well organized and ideological people who don't listen to reason," said Everett, 29, who is the daughter-in-law of former Wake school board chairman John Gilbert.
Off to jail, again
Tuesday's arrest of Dante Strobino, 29, of Raleigh shows it's the fourth time he's been charged for trespassing, according to state court records. The records show he's also been arrested twice for resisting a police officer and once for breaking and entering. Strobino is a union organizer who has also been a youth activist with the Raleigh chapter of F.I.S.T. (Fight Imperialism Stand Together), an avowed socialist group.
Strobino, a former N.C. State University student, declined comment Thursday.
Court records also show that one of the arrested protesters, Duncan Edward Hardee, 21, of Asheville, has now been charged once for resisting a police officer, once for trespassing and once for indecent exposure. Hardee, a former student at Enloe High School in Raleigh, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Records show that Tuesday's arrest for resisting a police officer was the first for Rakhee Devasthali, 22, a UNC-Chapel Hill student from Fayetteville. Devasthali was among protesters who were nearly arrested after they started chanting their opposition to increased tuition and fees at a state legislative hearing earlier this month.
Devasthali did not return calls or e-mails for comment Thursday.
Images of the three being arrested have blazed across the country this week in numerous media outlets.
"I'm proud that we have students getting involved," said school board member Kevin Hill, a member of the minority. "But the students have to realize there are limits."
Margiotta keeps quiet
School board chairman Ron Margiotta said he's turned down numerous national media requests for interviews.
"I'm trying to let things calm down with all the national stuff going on," Margiotta said.
Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said the level of coverage means recruiters will likely encounter questions about the schools from people or companies Wake would like to attract.
"The reality is we still have a very strong system; that didn't change overnight," Schmitt said. "In terms of the impact that it's going to have, I think that over time we'll have a better appreciation for that."
News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.
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