Trials sought for protesters of Wake school board

Outgoing GOP school board members reject prosecution's offer for mediation.

khui@newsobserver.com, tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comDecember 8, 2011 

The Wake County school board lineup that left office Tuesday decided behind closed doors last week to seek trials for 30 people charged with trespassing at board meetings, rejecting a prosecution offer to have the cases mediated. Former board chairman Ron Margiotta said the board wanted to take a stand against "anarchy."

But Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Wednesday that his office will make the ultimate decision and that he still hopes the cases can be settled rather than tie up court dockets.

"We had anticipated that the school board would be involved in the discussions to try to mediate it out," Willoughby said. "It will be hard to have mediation when one side refuses to be involved in the process."

Court dates had been scheduled to begin as early as Friday for 10 of the 30 people charged with trespassing between March and August 2010, a period when demonstrations became a regular feature of meetings. During that time, a newly elected, Republican-controlled board was dismantling long-held Wake policies, including diversity-based student assignment.

During a closed-session meeting last week, the Republican majority voted to rescind its prior authorization to seek mediation. Margiotta, who lost an October re-election bid, charged that attorneys for the protesters had stalled on the issue and only agreed to consider mediation after this fall's elections swept in a new Democratic majority.

Margiotta said the board members did not want to encourage the kinds of civil disobedience seen at the board meetings and more recently at the Occupy Wall Street-style events.

"Since then, we've had people arrested at the Capitol, at malls," Margiotta said. "Standards have to be set or else you'll have anarchy."

During the 2010 meetings, demonstrators engaged in acts of civil disobedience, such as taking over the seats of board members, banging the walls during meetings and refusing to give up the podium.

Those arrested ranged from teenagers to people over 70 to such prominent civil rights advocates as state NAACP president the Rev. William Barber, Pullen Memorial Church pastor the Rev. Nancy Petty and Duke University historian and author Tim Tyson.

"A message has to be sent that you can't disrupt public meetings," Margiotta said.

The cases have stalled as attorneys for the protesters asked that the charges be dropped or that all the demonstrators have one mass trial.

Willoughby, a Democrat, said he approached school officials and attorneys for the protesters several months ago about entering into meditation to resolve the disputes.

Last week's meeting was called at the last minute. Margiotta said he felt it was important for the outgoing board to discuss the issue because it had dealt with the protesters and the new members had not.

Reached Wednesday, Tyson said he has no strong position in the back and forth over mediation. But he made a case that the demonstrations served their intended purpose.

"I think the determination of the community not to have any more high-poverty schools has been made clear and the issue that we were engaged in civil disobedience about has been resolved," he said. "When you engage in civil disobedience, you are saying, 'I believe in this so deeply and it is so important for me to say so, for my conscience and my community, that I am willing to pay whatever price is required.' "

New board member Jim Martin said Wednesday that the board needs to be briefed on the offer from Willoughby.

"Mediation is almost always the better solution," Martin said.

Elena Everett, an adviser to NC HEAT, a youth organization that saw some of its members arrested and blocked from further meetings, said Wake students should have the opportunity to attend meetings where decisions are being made that affect them.

"They are being punished, and they haven't been convicted," Everett said.

Seth Keel, 17, a Middle Creek High student who has been barred from attending meetings since being arrested, said he looks forward to being able to return to school board events.

"I just want to see these charges dropped," Keel said. "I would hope that the new board would allow us to take part in the democratic process."

Hui: 919-829-4534