The new Democratic majority on the Wake County school board has sided with its Republican predecessors in seeking trials instead of mediation for 30 people charged with trespassing at board meetings in 2010.
Assistant District Attorney Steven Saad, who is handling the cases, said school board attorney Ann Majestic told him Tuesday that the new board wants the cases to proceed through the court system. Saad said the trials for the protesters, who include state NAACP President the Rev. William Barber, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church pastor the Rev. Nancy Petty, and Duke University historian and author Tim Tyson, could take place as soon as next month.
The decision surprised some of the protesters. Their attorneys agreed to mediation only after voters elected a school board majority that the defendants thought would be more sympathetic toward them.
"I am surprised," said Seth Keel, a Middle Creek High School student who was among those arrested. "I've always been willing to go along with mediation. We want to be allowed back to speak at board meetings."
Majestic and Democratic school board Chairman Kevin Hill declined Tuesday to discuss the reason behind the board's decision, noting that the discussion took place behind closed doors at last week's board meeting. Majestic said the issue was discussed last week because three new board members had taken office in December since the prior board had made its decision.
"The issue was raised just to make sure there was no change in the board's decision, and there was no change." Majestic said.
Wake Superintendent Tony Tata noted Tuesday that the protesters could have entered mediation if they had accepted it when the previous school board was agreeable.
"We offered to mediate with them and were still waiting for them to respond," Tata said.
The decision was welcomed by former Republican board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who had publicly called for the protesters to be prosecuted. Margiotta praised the board's decisions to reject mediation and to allow the new student assignment plan that was passed under the Republican majority to go forward without changes.
"Hopefully they realized the importance of keeping meetings under control," said Margiotta, who lost his bid for re-election in October. "It was enlightening. I'm very happy to see they went forward with the assignment plan."
The 2010 protests tie back to the fight over the role diversity should play in student assignment in the state's largest school district.
During the 2010 meetings, demonstrators were charged with trespassing and other misdemeanor charges for acts such as taking over the seats of board members, banging the walls during meetings and refusing to give up the podium. They were protesting the Republican board majority's elimination of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment.
District Attorney Colon Willoughby approached school leaders last summer about seeking mediation in lieu of prosecution. The board agreed to seek mediation, but Saad said Al McSurely, a longtime civil rights attorney who represents the protesters, didn't tell him they were interested until just before Thanksgiving. McSurely did not return calls Tuesday.
By late November, the election sweep by five Democratic school board candidates shifted control of the officially nonpartisan, nine-member board. The outgoing Republican majority, in a closed-door meeting Dec. 1, voted to rescind the mediation offer.
Tyson said Tuesday he was OK with the board's decision because its job is to deal with education, not criminal cases. He said he's willing to "pay the price" for his civil disobedience.
But Tyson said he had hoped the school board would heed the request from the state NAACP to delay implementation of the new student assignment plan. He said he's worried that, despite assurances from the board members to monitor the plan's implementation, it could result in the creation of more high-poverty schools.
"I was upset and disappointed that they went ahead with the plan, but I hope to be mistaken in my unhappiness," Tyson said.