SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Campus police pepper-sprayed as many as 30 demonstrators after Santa Monica College students angry over a plan to offer high-priced courses tried to push their way into a trustees meeting, authorities said.
Raw video posted Tuesday evening on the Internet showed students chanting, “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 who is running for Congress as a Green Party candidate.
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,” Steinman said.
Marioly Gomez, 21, said she was standing in a hallway outside the meeting with several hundred other students who wanted to get into the meeting.
“I got pepper-sprayed without warning,” she said.
Santa Monica College spokesman Bruce Smith said he believed it was the first time pepper spray had been used to subdue students on campus.
“It was the judgment of police that the crowd was getting out of hand and it was a safety issue,” he 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 similar incident at UC Davis in November, in which an officer doused a row of student protesters with pepper spray as they sat passively, drew worldwide attention. It became a rallying point for the Occupy movement.
Firefighters were called to the campus at about 7:20 p.m. Five people were evaluated at the scene and two were taken to a hospital, Santa Monica Fire Department Capt. Judah Mitchell said. Their conditions were not known, but the injuries were not believed to be serious, Mitchell said.
Students have been upset over a new plan that involves the formation of a nonprofit foundation which would offer core courses for about $600 each, or about $200 per unit – about four times the current price. The program is designed to cope with rising student demand as state funds dwindle.
The move has raised questions about whether it would create two tiers of students in a system designed to make education accessible to everyone and whether it’s even legal under state education law.
Community colleges statewide have lost $809 million in state funding over the past three years, causing schools to turn away about 200,000 students and drastically cut the number of classes offered.
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.