'Non-violent protest' halts Wake school board meeting

Posted June 15, 2010 6:12 p.m. EDT
Updated July 6, 2010 8:01 a.m. EDT

— A civil rights group staging a non-violent protest brought the Wake County school board meeting to a halt Tuesday afternoon when it took over the board's meeting room, standing together with interlocked arms and singing "We Shall Overcome."

"Today, we register our legitimate discontent … We are willing to break a lesser law and accept the punishment to protect a larger law," Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said. "We are here to stay."

About an hour later, Raleigh police arrested Barber, 46; Nancy Ellen Petty, 46, a pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh; Timothy Buie Tyson, 50, a research scholar at Duke University; and parent Mary Dobbin Williams, 48, on second-degree trespassing charges.

The group of local clergy members were protesting the Wake County Board of Education's move away from the school system's current student assignment plan, which buses students in an effort to try to balance socio-economic diversity.

In March, the board voted to assign students based upon geography, placing children in schools closer to where they live.

Opponents fear doing so will lead to re-segregation in the school system, create pockets of poverty, result in low-performing schools and high teacher turnover. Advocates believe that with community-based schools parents will have more options for their children's schooling and opportunities to be more involved.

"Who do you think your recent decisions benefit? Your individual students, or all of the students?" Petty asked the board.

Barber called the move an "ill-considered decision" that wipes away, in six months, what it took more than a century "of tears, sweat and blood to accomplish."

The protesters spoke for about 20 minutes before board Chairman Ron Margiotta called a recess. Barber and his group then took over the school board members' seats.

Proponents of the community-based assignment model say that parents will have more choices and more involvement in their children's schooling.

"We believe it will probably reduce the amount of segregation in Wake County," board member John Tedesco said.

Tedesco, who has stated repeatedly that diversity and community-based assignments are not opposites, said Barber was offered the opportunity to meet privately with the board to discuss his concerns.

“He told us he wanted to have his discussion on camera for media grand-standing purposes,” Tedesco said. "I think that we took every step to not have someone arrested."

“I hate that someone had to be arrested," Margiotta added. "I did not want anyone to be arrested.”

Members Keith Sutton and Carolyn Morrison, who are among the four board members who have consistently opposed ending the diversity policy, said they took no issue with the protest.

“This was their way of trying to grab their attention,” Sutton said.

“It didn't disrupt us for long, and think they were well-intended,” Morrison added.

The four arrested were later released without having to post bond.

“I had the opportunity to make a stand, and if I believe in something, it's what I should do,” Williams said. "If nothing changes, and I hope that it will, at least we tried."