RALEIGH — A coalition of liberal ministers and community leaders asked the Wake County school board and the district attorney's office today to seek mediation instead of trials for 30 protesters arrested at school board meetings in 2010.
District Attorney Colon Willoughby has said he will prosecute the 30 after the school board rejected mediation this month. But speakers at a news conference today said that mediation would heal the community, save taxpayer money and not tie up the courts.
"I'm here to encourage the school board to take up mediation instead of ripping us apart," said the Rev. Duane Beck, co-chair of Congregations for Social Justice and pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church.
In 2010, demonstrators were charged with trespassing and other misdemeanors for acts such as taking over board members' seats, banging walls during meetings and refusing to give up the lectern. They were protesting the decision of the school board, then led by Republicans, to stop using socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment.
Speakers today argued that the protesters thought they had no option but to engage in civil disobedience.
"The protesters had the right to stand up to actions they felt were unjust," said the Rev. Earl Johnson, pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church and president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, a civil rights group.
Last summer, Willoughby approached the Republican-led school board about seeking mediation in lieu of prosecution. The board agreed, but Assistant District Attorney Steven Saad has said that Al McSurely, a longtime civil rights lawyer 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 school board.
Johnson gave a different account today, saying that representatives of the protesters had told him that they accepted the mediation offer in October.
The opportunity for mediation appeared to end Dec. 1, when the outgoing Republican majority voted in a closed-door session to rescind its offer.
During a closed session on Jan. 10, the new board agreed to leave in place the prior board's decision.
Democratic board members have said the decision doesn't mean they wanted trials, but Willoughby said the board's decision means he's going forward with prosecution.
Johnson said he was "extremely disappointed" in the new board majority's actions. He said he hoped "they would have a change of heart."
Speakers from the Great Schools in Wake Coalition at today's event called for mediation but also defended the new board members. Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools, said the new board members "didn't have full information" when they made their decision.
Brannon and former school board member Beverley Clark, a leader in Great Schools and a trained mediator, said new board members didn't realize that Willoughby could use mediation only with the board's consent.
But Republican school board member John Tedesco said all the board members knew what they were doing, including that they had to agree to mediation for it to be used, when they made their decision this month.
Johnson said he's hopeful, based on a conversation with a school board member, that the board will announce at the Feb. 7 meeting they want to pursue mediation.
Tedesco said it would show that the new board is making a political decision by now accepting mediation.
"Both boards have spoken," Tedesco said. "It's behind us now. Let's start talking about real issues."