School board protesters face trial

Leaders rejected mediation to handle disruptions during the 2010 meetings.

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 20, 2012 

The Wake County District Attorney's office plans to prosecute protesters charged with trespassing at school board meetings in 2010, but Democratic school board members want to distance themselves from the decision.

District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Thursday that the Wake County school board's decision last week to reject mediation means his office is moving forward with prosecution of the 30 protesters, who include the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP.

Members of the Democratic school board majority who are in sympathy with the protesters said the decision was Willoughby's to make and their rejection of mediation didn't mean they wanted trials to be held.

"We did NOT vote last week that we wished to take protestors to trial!!!" new Democratic school board member Susan Evans posted Thursday on her Facebook page. "We were informed that the District Attorney could exercise his own judgment with these cases and we place our trust in Mr. Willoughby to do what is fair and most sensible for the taxpayers."

In one meeting where Barber was arrested, Evans stood beside protesters to sing civil rights-era songs.

But Willoughby said they wouldn't be preparing to prosecute the protesters had the board agreed to mediation.

"If everyone had agreed to mediation, we'd be trying to do that," Willoughby said.

Willoughby said he doesn't expect to dismiss charges against any protesters unless his office finds unique circumstances.

In not dismissing the charges, Willoughby cited the long history of people who've faced legal consequences for acts of civil disobedience.

In this case, the demonstrators disrupted school board meetings to protest the then-Republican board majority's elimination of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment.

"Those arrested for acts of civil disobedience were, I believe, deliberately trying to effectuate their arrests to make a public statement regarding the actions of government," Willoughby said.

"There have been a lot of situations over the years where people have chosen civil disobedience as a nonviolent way to protest government action. In most of these cases, people come up and take responsibility."

In 2010, 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 lectern.

Last summer, Willoughby approached the Republican-led school board about seeking mediation in lieu of prosecution.

The board agreed to seek mediation, but Assistant District Attorney Steven Saad said Al McSurely, a longtime civil rights attorney who represents the protesters, didn't tell him that the protesters were interested in mediation until November, after a Democratic majority was elected to the board.

The opportunity for mediation closed Dec. 1, when the outgoing Republican majority voted in a closed-door session to rescind its offer.

Barber referred questions Thursday to legal counsel.

Efforts to reach McSurely were unsuccessful.

Limited options

During last week's closed-session meeting, the new board left in place the decision to rescind the mediation.

Democratic school board members such as Evans didn't return calls Tuesday when the board's decision was made public. Others declined to comment, citing that the discussion was in closed session.

Democratic school board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said Wednesday that he interpreted the board's decision as leaving it up to Willoughby to go to trial.

But Sutton also acknowledged that it had the same practical effect as the prior board decision to seek prosecution.

Willoughby said the board's decision limited his options.

"You can't have coerced mediation," he said.

Willoughby said some of the protesters may be eligible for a first-offender program under which they can perform community service in exchange for having the charges dismissed.

Even if the protesters are found guilty, Willoughby said it's unlikely they would receive jail time. He said fines and community service are more likely.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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