Students angry over pricey courses pepper-sprayed

Published 3:01 pm Wednesday, April 4, 2012

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — A state agency that oversees California’s community colleges asked the attorney general on Wednesday to assess the legality of a school’s plan to charge students more for popular classes.

The move comes the morning after Santa Monica College police pepper-sprayed demonstrators as students angry over the plan tried to push their way into a meeting of the school’s trustees, authorities said.

Officials at the California Community Colleges system chancellor’s office do not believe the plan is allowed under the state’s education law, spokesman Paul Feist said.

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Chancellor Jack Scott spoke to Santa Monica College President Chui Tsang, asking that the plan be put on hold but Tsang was non-committal, Feist said.

An email message left with college spokesman Bruce Smith was not immediately returned. The school, however, has said its lawyers concluded that the plan was legal.

The plan involves the formation of a nonprofit foundation that would offer core courses for about $600 each, or about $200 per unit — about four times the current price. The extra courses at the higher rate would help students who were not able to get into popular classes that filled up quickly.

The program is designed to cope with rising student demand as state funds dwindle. Community colleges statewide have lost $809 million in state funding over the past three years, causing them to turn away about 200,000 students and drastically cut course offerings.

The move at the school, which has about 30,000 students, has raised questions about whether it would create two tiers of students in a system designed to make education accessible to everyone.

On Tuesday night, according to video posted online, protesters shouted, “Let us in, let us in,” and “No cuts, no fees, education should be free.”

Students were angry because only a handful were allowed into the meeting and, when their request to move the meeting to a larger venue was denied, they began to enter the room, said David Steinman, an environmental advocate.

The incident occurred in a narrow hallway packed with shouting protesters. The videos show a chaotic scene with some struggles between demonstrators and police.

Two officers were apparently backed up against a wall, and began using force to keep the students out of the room. Steinman said both officers used pepper spray. “People were gasping and choking,” he said.

“It was the judgment of police that the crowd was getting out of hand and it was a safety issue,” Bruce Smith, the college spokesman, said earlier. He said he believed it was the first time pepper spray had been used to subdue students on campus.

Firefighters were called to the campus around 7:20 p.m. Five people were evaluated at the scene and two were taken to a hospital. Their conditions were not known, but the injuries were not believed to be serious, fire officials said.

Trustee Louise Jaffe said during the meeting that she doesn’t believe the students want to listen. “We spoke for four hours and we weren’t understood,” she said.

Trustee David Finkel called on campus officials to look into Tuesday evening’s events. “I think it gave the college a black eye, which I know it didn’t deserve and certainly didn’t need,” he said.

Video of a pepper spray incident at University of California, Davis, in November drew worldwide attention. In that footage, an officer doused a row of student protesters with pepper spray as they sat passively. It became a rallying point for the Occupy Wall Street movement.