Civil rights panel gets an earful on Wake schools

Staff writerMay 5, 2011 

— All the conflict raging about the Wake schools for the past year and a half came spilling out Wednesday night when a panel of federal civil rights investigators heard testimony - often heated - in an East Raleigh church.

The hearing concerned a complaint against Wake Public Schools, filed with the federal education department by the state NAACP. An estimated 200 people nearly filled the fellowship hall at Martin Street Baptist Church, with speakers making emphatic points on both sides of the issues.

Fired-up, Wake County parent Darryl Fulton brought his four children to the microphone to argue that the innocent love that all children feel for people of all backgrounds was being jeopardized by racism in the schools system.

"They are being introduced to blatant white supremacy in the Wake County school system," Fulton said.

The complaint accuses the Wake school board of discriminating against minority children by discarding a diversity-based student assignment policy and by using long-term suspension and other disciplinary methods disproportionately against minority students.

A finding that Wake schools have violated civil rights law, which the system hotly denies, could result in the loss of millions of dollars annually in federal support.

Howard Kallem, chief attorney for the Office for Civil Rights, called up about 30 speakers, most of whom spoke against the Republican dominated board which swept into power during fall elections in 2009.

"Thank you for the diverse panel tonight," retired Wake schools teacher Doris Burke told the five-member group of investigators. "We will not and shall not go back to the back of the bus and that seems like what they are trying to do with our children."

'None of this is new'

Speaking against the NAACP complaint, Cary resident Joe Ciulla told the panel that many of the issues before them long predated the tenure of the present board. Ciulla said the new board won its right to run the system based on votes from parents frustrated about frequent reassignment of their own children and their perceptions that the busing-based diversity policy wasn't working for low-income children.

"None of this is new," Ciulla said. "A majority of the people who voted in that election wanted to send their children closer to home."

School board supporter Jennifer Mansfield questioned the timing of the complaint filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We already had racially identifiable schools, and nobody complained about them," Mansfield said. "It's not as though the new school board came in and automatically did these things."

The Rev. William E. Barber, state NAACP president, argued that decisions already made by the current board showed a clear movement toward schools with high levels of racial isolation. He used the new Walnut Creek Elementary School as an example.

Board members have made plans to offer extra support and programs to high-poverty schools including Walnut Creek.

David LaMatte, representing the N.C. Council of Churches, told investigators that the current board was misguided in its move toward neighborhood schools, which he said were destined to lead to resegregation.

"We know what will happen," LaMatte said. "We know that separate will never be equal."

The federal investigators have said they will hold a second community meeting in another section of Wake County, but time and location have not been announced.

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