Pepper spray? Used on Santa Monica College students? How could that be? It’s not who we are, not as a city, not as a community, and not as an institution of higher learning. But it happened. According to the SMFD, who were called to the Campus, 30 people suffered the effects of pepper spray. Most of the injured were treated on campus by the SMFD. Three people were taken to the hospital to be treated and were released. The College announced it would pay any medical bills.
I believe I speak for the many, both at the College and in the community, when I say I am sorry. As a member of the Santa Monica community I apologize to the students who were hurt and to any students who were frightened or were intimidated into being silent by their fear.
The College Police Department will hold an internal investigation of the officer and the incident, as they must. And the College will hold an independent review. I think that’s appropriate and I hope one result will be the preparation of policy and protocol documents protecting students, their right to protest, and reaffirming the feeling of safety and belonging for students that has long been the hallmark of the College.
Why were students protesting? They came, most, but not all, to oppose the concept of “contract classes.” Simply put, students currently pay $46 per class unit. Contract classes would be offered to students who couldn’t get into the classes they needed/wanted and would cost $180 per class unit. Due to the already deep cuts in State funding for community college education students often don’t get the classes they want.
For some students, such as students enrolled in State Universities who are coming to SMC to take summer classes that will transfer to the four-year schools, these classes would be a bargain. For most Santa Monica College students it would be unaffordable.
The issue of contract classes surfaced at the March 6 meeting of the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees. The Trustees had been looking for ways to keep the doors open for students and teachers, to provide options for students who needed classes. They saw contract classes as a practical alternative made necessary in response to the devastating decline in education funding from the State, which has caused a tragic number of students to be turned away from community colleges.
The Trustees approved a summer, contract class pilot program. Approximately 10 students leaders who attended the meeting expressed their opposition.
By the Trustee meeting of April 3 the students, who had been at the March 6 meeting, were joined by approximately 100 students, mostly coming to voice their opposition to the concept of contract classes, saying they saw it as eroding the mission of the community college as a place where education was available to all.
It was at this meeting when more students showed up than the meeting room could accommodate, that students waiting to get in were pepper sprayed. An overflow room, with an audio feed, had been set up and some students went into that room but many students wanted to be in the same room as the Trustees, saying it was important the Trustees see their faces during the discussion and vote.
The details are in dispute. Some are saying students were too loud, pushed too hard, and rushed the door. Others are saying there was no threatening action on the part of the students that could justify the use of pepper spray by the Santa Monica College police officer. A video, on the LA Times website, shows students standing in the doorway and hallway and chanting, “Let us in.” Next the video shows students running and crying and people calling out for help. Some students are chanting, “Shame.” It is a chaotic scene.
The Pepper Spray incident, as it has come to be known, startled students, the local community and made the national news. It led to a week of campus protests, press conferences, and action. It focused attention on the contract class proposal.
On Friday, April 6, right before Spring Break and with students and faculty preparing to go home for Easter and Passover, the Trustees held a special meeting. This time the meeting was held at the Main Stage on campus, an auditorium that accommodates several hundred people. It was full. No one was turned away.
The meeting began with College President Chui Tsang speaking movingly of his own start at a community college. An immigrant, he became fluent in English, went on to a university, earned his doctorate and is now President of the College. He said, “I want all students to have the opportunities I had.”
President Tsang presented the Trustees with a recommendation that they cancel the proposed summer pilot program and postpone implementing any self-funded classes pending a campus-wide dialogue.
Board Chair Dr. Margaret Quiñones-Perez then opened the public hearing and for more than two hours, students from Santa Monica College, Community College Associations, and faculty members, spoke.
Most students spoke of their opposition to the concept of contract classes saying, “providing special access to education to those who can pay extra fees hands the politicians in Sacramento a way to further decrease public funding for the community colleges. What you hope would be a short-term action to fill a gap is a funding mechanism they will seize and make permanent.”
“You are not creating a system of options, you are creating a system of entitlements. Sacramento should be looking at closing the corporate loophole in Prop 13, not at further cutting funding for education. We should be looking for community and college partnerships.”
Students told trustees they shouldn’t try to solve problems for Sacramento, but should instead stand together, trustees, faculty, and students and that together they would have a strong voice.
Students repeatedly asked to be included in the decisions that affect them and thanked the trustees for holding the special meeting. Jasmine Delgado, the Vice-President of the Students Association said, “I am here to talk about the future. Through shared governance we can create innovative, local solutions. We can do this.”
There were also students, although fewer in numbers, who supported the idea of contract classes. One student, here on a visa, said he was required to be enrolled in a certain number of classes or he would lose his visa and be deported and he was willing to pay extra for the contract classes. Another student said that they too were willing to pay more so they could get, in a timely way, the classes they needed to transfer to a four-year college.
Faculty speakers were divided on the issue of contract classes, with more of the faculty speakers in favor. But faculty and student speakers spoke in one voice of the need for dialogue and for working together.
Speakers also spoke to the pepper spray incident. One faculty member said to the Trustees, “It was well know in advance of the April 3 meeting that a large number of students wanted to speak why the heck didn’t you hold your meeting in a larger venue?”
Student comments ranged from, “I attempted to attend the April 3 meeting. I want you to know that we didn’t rush the police officer at the door, we didn’t provoke his actions and we were completely unprepared for the pepper spray. Thank you for hearing us today,” to the opposite extreme of a student saying he “knew the students had been deliberately provocative.”
At the end of the meeting it was clear that the Trustees had gotten out ahead of the students on this issue, but were now listening. In the words of one student, “let us step back and re-imagine the future.”
It was a rocky week at the college. With good people all around, with educators wanting to teach and students wanting an education the College succeeded in coming to a solution that recognized the democratic principle of the consent of the governed. The Trustees voted unanimously to cancel the summer pilot program and to postpone offering any contract classes pending a full, campus-wide discussion of the issue.
I say we can help by adding our voices to those of the students, faculty, and staff at the college. We can urge Sacramento legislators, as was suggested in the meeting, to look at the corporate loopholes in Proposition 13. We can support the tax measure Governor Brown has proposed, which will raise funding for higher education. We can let our elected officials know we support higher education.
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