Ages are diverse in school arrests

STAFF WRITERAugust 11, 2010 

  • In addition to Keel and Justice, Raleigh police identified those arrested Tuesday night as Carolyn Veronica Billings, 71; Graham Marshall Buckner, 18; Samuel Cole Matthews, 16 and Gayle Santi Matthews, 47.

    Police did not list addresses for the suspects, who were charged with second-degree trespassing, but said all are from Wake County.

— This time, the backdrop was the arrest of a multigenerational group of protesters - teenagers joined by older people - as the new Wake County school board majority on Tuesday continued on its path of remaking the state's largest school system.

Following the protests, the school board majority, having promised as campaigners to listen hard to constituents, cut in half its monthly number of full, or "action" meetings and public comment periods. Leaders described it as a streamlining move that would increase the board's efficiency.

Seth Keel, 16, a Middle Creek High School student, was joined in refusing to leave the lectern by two other teens and three adults, including Doris Justice, 73, a speaker who said she had grown up in segregated schools in Raleigh. Keel had made a short speech criticizing the board's move away from Wake schools' previous policy of balancing student populations by families' economic background.

"What do we want?" Keel asked repeatedly, as police closed in.

"Justice," his fellow protesters responded.

The arrests were the fourth in a series of protests that began in March and have led to 30 trespassing charges against pastors, students and others, including the Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP.

"This was a sad one because of the individuals involved," said board Chairman Ron Margiotta, referring to the ages of those arrested. "The problem is, you can't treat them any differently."

After eight months of contentious twice-monthly meetings marked by long, often harsh comment periods, board members voted 5-4 to cut full meetings and their public hearings to the number required by law, once monthly.

"We've bent over backwards to hear everyone," school board member Deborah Prickett said.

Under Tuesday's action, an additional work session will be held each month.

Margiotta has said the board is not reducing the amount of public comment because of the protesters' actions, adding that changes in meetings were a work in progress that might see the panel meet at different times and locations in Wake.

Having taken control of the board after fall elections, the five-member, Republican-backed majority has made major changes to long-standing policies crafted by previous panels mostly controlled by Democrats.

"I'm trying to streamline the process for all board members," Margiotta said.

In addition, the board dissolved the committees it has maintained on specific areas such as facilities, student achievement and human resources, with member Keith Sutton crossing the line to vote with majority members. However, committees formed for specific purposes, like those on the student assignment plan and on achievement by economically deprived students, will continue to meet.

Margiotta has said having fewer meetings would help board members who have a hard time attending because of their work schedules.

"He has clearly had enough of us," parent and activist Amy Lee said of Margiotta during the comment period.

Even before the arrests, it took multiple interruptions from Margiotta to douse a fiery speech by Cary resident Diana Bader, who accused the board of "flatlining diversity" and following the wishes of influential Republican donors, a charge board members have denied.

"Ms. Bader, I am asking you to sit down or you will be removed from this room," Margiotta said. "Is this what you are asking for?"

Parents and activists criticized the new formats as an unwelcome change in direction by a board majority that promised increased openness to public opinion. New rules also prevent other people from signing up speakers for them. Margiotta also pledged an exploration into new means of signing up speakers.

"In reality it hurts working people and parents of school-age children," Cary resident Betsy Lovejoy said of the changes. "No wonder people are protesting; you are taking away our rights."

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com at 919-829-8929

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