(Photo: AP Photo/Courtesy David Steinman)
The dozens of student protesters who were pepper-sprayed by police at a California community college weren't just angry about not getting into a meeting of school trustees.
They were fuming about a new Santa Monica College plan that would let students who did not get into a needed, high-demand course take the class anyway, but only if they paid hundreds of dollars more.
On Tuesday night, the emotions boiled over at the meeting.
And a day later, the state agency that oversees the state's community colleges called on the attorney general to judge whether the plan was legal. Agency officials also called for the college to temporarily halt the program.
The college has said the summer pilot program is an attempt to create new ways to fund some popular state-required classes in an era of declining state education aid.
Critics say the plan will create a caste system favoring wealthy students and runs contrary to the idea of community colleges as a gateway into the middle class.
"Students feel they are being backed into a corner. They feel like they have been left out of the discussion," said Joshua Scuteri, a student trustee. "The feeling on campus is it's like the Alamo."
The school is one of the state's largest two-year colleges, with an enrollment of roughly 30,000 students. About 1,100 classes out of 7,430 have been slashed since 2008.
As a result, students can't get the courses they need to graduate. They have held protests before but wanted to be heard and seen by trustees Tuesday night, students said. They were upset because only a handful of them were allowed into the meeting.
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 clash, parts of which were videotaped and posted online, occurred in a narrow hallway packed with shouting protesters. The videos show a chaotic scene with some struggles between them 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.
Jasmine Delgado, vice president of the college's Associated Students, said she tried to restore calm shortly before officers used the pepper spray.
Delgado said she was pushed to the ground by an officer where she landed on her right arm. She said she suffered a contusion and her arm was in a sling Wednesday. "I think this shows how much students are willing to go through for their education," she said.
School officials said an overflow room was available to students but the demonstrators wanted to get inside the main meeting space.
In a statement, college President Chui Tsang said that despite people engaging in unlawful conduct, including setting off fire alarms, police made no arrests. He said the college was investigating the incident.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement Wednesday calling for a thorough investigation, saying students have a right to make their voices heard.
Video of a pepper spray incident at University of California, Davis, in November drew worldwide attention when 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.
California Community Colleges system Chancellor Jack Scott spoke with Tsang, asking that the plan be put on hold, but Tsang was noncommittal, said Paul Feist, the vice chancellor.
"The chancellor is concerned about the impact of a two-tiered system on low-income students," he said.
The school has said its lawyers have concluded that the plan was legal.
The plan involves the formation of a nonprofit foundation that would offer courses for about $600 each, or about $200 per unit. The extra courses at the higher rate would help students who were not able to get into the full, in-demand classes.
Those classes would be in addition to classes that are subsidized with state aid.
"Revenue from these programs will be used to increase access to the college's regular educational programs and services," Tsang said in the statement.
Community colleges have long been a haven for students unable to afford the rising costs at universities but the institutions also have been hampered by budget cuts.
More than $800 million has been taken out of community college budgets over the past three years, causing them to turn away about 200,000 students and drastically cut course offerings.
Several colleges also have inquired about starting programs similar to Santa Monica's. An Assembly bill last year would have allowed the higher-fee programs, but it did not pass. Fourteen 14 colleges and college districts supported the measure.
Scuteri said he has sympathy for administrators who are trying to find solutions that will keep the college functioning but said the decision to approve the plan "feels like an act of desperation."
He echoed the sentiments of what many frustrated students have been expressing across the nation.
"Education is a right, not a privilege," he said.
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