Education

Tensions rise at Wake school board meeting; 19 arrested

Posted July 20, 2010 3:08 p.m. EDT
Updated July 21, 2010 3:13 p.m. EDT

— Nineteen people, including the head of North Carolina's NAACP chapter, were arrested Tuesday as advocates confronted the Wake County school board, which voted to move away from a decade-old policy of busing students for diversity.

The Rev. William Barber, who was banned from the gathering after a trespassing arrest at a board meeting last month, was again taken into custody along with two others outside the Wake County schools administration building in Raleigh shortly before the board's meeting began.

Sixteen other people were arrested after screaming and unrest erupted during a public comment period of the meeting.

The protesters held hands, locked arms and chanted against resegregation, refusing to leave the podium. More than a dozen officers intervened and took the protesters to a Division of Prisons inmate transfer bus.

"I feel like if they took the time to listen to what people had to say … and make eye contact with the people who are actually trying to talk about what is going on, maybe they could see some change," an unidentified protester said while being escorted into the bus.

School board member Keith Sutton was briefly caught in a scuffle between protesters and police before authorities realized who he was.

Sutton said he went into the crowd to try and calm things down and encourage officers not to use such strong force. He said he felt insulted that he almost got arrested and believes the officer who tried to detain him owes him an apology.

Earlier Tuesday, the NAACP led a rally with about 1,000 protesters marching through downtown Raleigh. Barber encouraged the crowd to attend the meeting, where police set up a mobile command center with roughly two dozen officers.

The school board notified Barber and others last week that legal action would be taken if they came on school property without written assurances that they would abide by the board's public participation policy.

He said shortly before his arrest that he was coming peacefully to give a letter to the school board chairman.

"You are not a king," he said of school board chairman Ron Margiotta. "You cannot sit in judgment and decide who you like and who you dislike and have those you dislike banned from your meetings," Barber continued.

The Wake County School Board has voted multiple times over the last several months to scrap the district's diversity policy, which distributed students based on socioeconomics and for years had been a model for other districts looking to balance diversity in schools. Several school board members elected last year have built a majority in favor of focusing on neighborhood schools.

Margiotta defended the new policy and the board, saying the policy aims to place students in schools closer to their homes and will "increase trust."

The school board majority, he said, wants "quality educational opportunities for all children by addressing the needs of all families" and aims to overcome "lack of choice and stagnated student achievement."

Board member John Tedesco said the protests and arrests wouldn't deter the board from its agenda.

"He can keep fighting. We're going to be here working for kids," Tedesco said of Barber. "If he wants to be out there, following the old playbook, rules for radicals, he can keep doing that while we're going to focus on the important issues: our children."

At the morning rally, speakers quoted Martin Luther King Jr., remembered the days of segregated water fountains and likened the current situation to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education battle. Barber talked about America's legacy of racial strife to galvanize the crowd.

"Too many prayers were prayed," Barber said. "Too many lives were sacrificed. Too much blood was shed. Too many tears were shed. We can't turn back now."

Barber and three others have been dubbed the "Raleigh 4" after their arrests last month.

His supporters believe the new policy will resegregate schools. They carried signs that read: "Segregate equals hate" and "History is not a mystery. Separate is always unequal."

George Ramsay, a white former student body president of Enloe High School, said it was necessary to keep the diversity policy in place to prepare students for an increasingly connected world.

"It is shortsighted to ignore the way students like me have been enriched by diversity," Ramsay said.