Students pepper-sprayed at Board of Trustees meeting

Students storming the 7 p.m. Board of Trustees meeting were pepper-sprayed by police.

Campus protests turned ugly Tuesday night as students and the Santa Monica Police clashed in front of a Board of Trustees meeting over contract education. Thirty protesters were pepper-sprayed, and two were transported to local hospitals after the group of students tried to storm the boardroom without authorization.

No arrests were made, according to the Santa Monica College Police Department.

About 70 students marched from the main campus library to the boardroom at the business building. There were chants of “No cuts, no fees, education should be free!”

Contract Ed, a measure that was passed last month by the Board of Trustees, has since gained nationwide attention. The measure involves tuition costs rising to $180 per unit for certain high-demand classes.

In the hallway outside of the boardroom, students were given numbers to gain entry to the boardroom. Upon opening the doors, tensions escalated, and the throng of students attempted to push their way into the small room that could not contain the size of the crowd. The police resorted to force to regain control.

With retractable clubs and pepper-spray, the officers worked to control the chaos. Within the melee, 30 students were pepper-sprayed, including a 4-year-old girl.

Students escape a barrage of pepper spray.

“It’s a shame this happened at a public meeting with our children in sight,” said the mother of the child who was pepper-sprayed (she declined to provide her name). “The cops brutalized students for fighting for their rights.”

“Students protest and demonstrate to express themselves and their emotions and that’s part of college, so we understand that,” Superintendent and President Dr. Chui L. Tsang told the Corsair on Monday.

From within the boardroom, the business-as-usual meeting became decidedly tense over the sounds of screaming and banging at the doors of the boardroom. As protestors yelled “Let us in! Let us in!” from outside of the boardroom, Trustee Louise Jaffe said “We’d like to let you into classes.”

Two girls rushed into the boardroom screaming with tears in their eyes. Security from within the room decided to quickly relocate trustees and guests into a separate room.

The police were trying to clear the area because of the potential fire hazard presented by the crowd, but the disgruntled crowd pushed forward, and police drew their clubs and pepper-sprayed protesters.

Twenty-seven firefighters were dispatched to the campus after there were reports of students who had been maced, Santa Monica firefighter Judah Mitchell said.

The crowd was dispersed as a result of the pepper-spraying, and continued their protest in direction of the library.

Monte Hawkins was one of the students sprayed. “There was no justification for that,” he said, still shaken. “The board knew there would be this many students there. They should have relocated to a bigger venue.”

The Board of Trustees meeting was regarding the contract education measure, which creates a system in which 700 state-funded classes are offered at a regular price of $46 per unit, and an additional 50 self-funded high-demand classes will be offered at $180 per unit during the summer session.

As the meeting reconvened into an open forum for the student protestors to offer their public comments, the student protestors were kept in the room adjacent to the boardroom with trustees Dr. Nancy Greenstein and Margaret Quinones-Perez. During this portion of the meeting, members of Associated Students along with other various clubs voiced their concerns about Contract Ed.

SMC student, Gaby Grussi, who attended the meeting said, “Everyone is pushing to have their voice heard and for the referendum to be passed by Sunday.” The referendum calls for Contract Ed to be voted on by the student body, as well as other campus groups.

School officials say that the higher fees are a result of the actual cost it takes for the school to provide those classes. The Santa Monica Career and Transfer Alliance—a non-profit corporation founded by SMC, will support them.

Administrators have named it the Advance Your Dreams Program, while the rest of the nation has been referring to the plan as the two-tier system.

Chaos ensues amidst shouts of "Shame on you!" and "Back up!" from students and police.

“We are somewhat surprised at the protesters and some of the so-called facts that are being bandied about by the groups of people,” said Tsang. “We’ve found some are saying that we’re raising tuition to $180 per unit for all courses, and that’s not the case.”

Critics maintain that the measure creates an unfair advantage for wealthier students who can afford to pay for the higher fees. Other concerns are that the program may be on shaky legal grounds.

Paul Feist, spokesperson for the California Community Colleges chancellor, Jack Scott, told the Corsair in an email prior to the incident that the program allegedly breaks the education codes, which does not allow students to be charged differential tuition fees for the type of classes SMC provides.

In response to those claims, Trustee Louise Jaffe maintained that the education codes pertaining to the fee differential option was neither permissive or explicitly forbidden, and is thus up for interpretation.

Trustees have said that raising the tuition fees and class cuts for the past four years stem from the state’s inability to properly fund higher public education. Tuition for state-funded classes will increase from $36 to $46 per credit, but Tsang says that the change was instituted by California.

The school is taking an initiative to respond to the strong demand for classes with Contract Ed.

But students are still dissatisfied with those claims. SMC student, Anthony Augello, with tears in his eyes from the pepper-spray said, “These students are being robbed. We didn’t create budget issues but we’re paying for it.”

Contributing authors: Henry Crumblish, Chavi Gourarie


Live updates (closed 9:55 p.m. April 3, 2012):

The students had gathered in protest of the two-tier pricing policy recently instituted at SMC. The board was going to allow 17 student speakers, and protesters were chanting "let us in!" Police were trying to clear the area because of the potential fire hazard presented by the crowd, but the disgruntled crowd pushed forward, and police drew their clubs and pepper sprayed protesters.

9:55 BOT meeting wrapping up. Cops still outside.

9:15 Frank Dawson, communications professor at SMC, gave a presentation at the BOT meeting tonight.  Dawson has his doubts about the policy, and he understands the students, "When students feel they don't have a voice, it's likely to lead to conflict. There needs to be a feeling of shared governance." He said students were crying earlier tonight even before the incident escalated into violence.

9:00 BOT meeting in session in Business 101, where it began.

8:46 Students demanding to continue the Board of Trustees meeting in a larger room so that all students can attend. All doors at business building locked.

8:37 2 students transported to hospital, reports a member of the Fire Department.

8:33 Large crowd at Pico and 18th. Three choppers above.

8:24 Students moving back towards business building chanting, "They say fee hike, we say no strike."

8:00 The meeting is recessed until further notice, and police and paramedics are still on the scene. The protesters moved to the library steps.

7:43 Firemen hosing down student sprayed with pepper spray.

7:23 Protesters storm boardroom, police draw clubs and used pepper spray on protesters...

7:11 Group of protesters screaming, chanting "let us in!" outside board of trustees meeting.