The head of California’s community college system has requested that Santa Monica College’s controversial two-tier plan to offer high-priced courses be placed on hold following a protest at the Pico Blvd. campus where dozens of students were pepper-sprayed.
Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott has requested that SMC President Chui L. Tsang put the controversial plan on hold while the legality of the program is determined. SMC has not made any decision on whether to put the plan on hold.
Up to 30 SMC students were pepper-sprayed Tuesday evening as they attempted to enter the College’s Board of Trustees meeting that was discussing contract education that would dramatically hike fees at the college.
Mayhem unfolded when SMC campus police deployed pepper spray into the overcrowded hallway outside of the room where the meeting was taking place.
The chaos resulted in student Christine Deal being put in a chokehold, two students being rushed to the hospital from severe pepper spray reaction (including Associated Student vice president Jasmine Delgado), and a four-year-old girl was affected by the pepper spray mist that had been released inside the hallway of a public education building.
“A police officer grabbed me around the neck and other students tried to grab his arm to take it off of me,” said Deal shortly after the incident. “By the time he let me go, everybody started falling on the ground and there was pepper spray all over me. I can still feel the pepper spray all over my skin.”
SMC and its Campus Police Department have launched a full-scale investigation to determine how the situation at the college spiraled out of control and caused campus police to pepper spray the protesters.
Outside the business building where the incident happened, a number of protesters could be seen getting their eyes washed out by members of the Santa Monica Fire Department who showed up en masse to assist students who had been hurt.
Santa Monica Police Department Sgt. Richard Lewis said the SMPD received a 911 call from a female who reported that the Santa Monica College Police had just pepper sprayed several individuals who were participating in a protest at a College Board meeting being held at Santa Monica College at around 7:19 p.m.
As a precaution, the SMPD provided perimeter assistance for pedestrian and vehicle safety.
According to Captain Judah Mitchell, PIO for the Santa Monica Fire Department, “approximately 30 individuals sought decontamination from the effects of the pepper spray; with five individuals seeking further treatment by paramedics. Three of those individuals were later transported to a local hospital for further treatment.”
Lack of money to fund public education seems to be the core issue.
“They wouldn’t let us speak,” said Alejandra Ortega, a student who is involved with the Student Organizing Committee and who organized the press conference at the protest.
SMC students such as Ortega believe it is their right to express discontent with Santa Monica College for only allowing a small number of students to express their views against the school’s unpopular decision to hike fees that serves around 31,000 students.
“I think a lot of students were frustrated because they weren’t being heard,” said Delgado, who quoted the Brown Act and Board Policy as reasons for her actions. “The police were completely ignoring our demands. They were just barricading the door. If they were concerned of a fire hazard, then the meeting should have been held in a larger venue so that it could be given accessibility to everybody who wanted to be in the room.”
The protest turned sour when police used pepper spray to disperse the students that had crowded the halls of the Business Building after being denied entry due to the limited number of seats available in the Board of Trustees meeting.
When a fire alarm was set off, it created further pandemonium and resulted in the temporary evacuation of the building.
According to Kyleijah Wade, a Santa Monica College student who was pepper-sprayed, students were not warned about the possibility of being pepper-sprayed while trying to get inside the Board of Trustees meeting.
“We weren’t rushing or anything,” said Wade. “We were just trying to get into the meeting and it was the cops who made it violent.”
The Santa Monica College Police Department was unavailable for comment.
As a result of the soon-to-be-implemented referendum that has been proposed by Board of Trustees President Chui L. Tsang, tuition fees at SMC will be raised from “$36 dollars a unit to $180 dollars for core classes beginning this summer.”
Tsang said this would allow for “25 percent more classes than last summer.”
“They are creating a two-tier system where students would not be able to afford these classes,” Ortega said. “The higher class (students) would be able to afford the education whereas working students would not.”
If a working student makes around $10 an hour and has to pay for dramatically higher education expenses, Ortega could be right.
According to a public statement from Tsang, this means that one core class would cost around “$540 a course for a typical 3-unit course” and is “far below the tuition rate at the State’s other public educational systems.”
Upcoming four and five unit courses found in select core classes of Math, Accounting, and the Biological Sciences, would also increase 400-500 percent and would range between $720-$900 instead of the current fee that hovers around $144-$180 for these classes.
Tsang defended the actions of Santa Monica College to raise tuition fees.
“SMC is still turning away hundreds, if not thousands, of students because budget cuts have forced the college to trim class offerings by 1,100 course sections since 2008,” Tsang said. “Statewide, it is estimated that community colleges have turned away 300,000 students because of budget cuts.”
In a statement released by the Santa Monica College’s Student Organizing Committee, the move would “release the state of responsibility for funding, shift the burden onto students, and is a step towards privatization.”
These two viewpoints between the administration and students are poles apart and seem to have led to the clash Tuesday night.
Santa Monica College ASB President Harrison Wills, who participated in the protest and who was allowed inside the meeting with a ticket, tried to make sense as to why school administrators chose not to hold the Board of Trustees meeting in a larger room.
“There was already a warning to have it in a bigger room,” Wills said. “We focus on the symptoms all the time. We start blaming students and blaming poor people.”
According to Wills, a previous Board of Trustees meeting was shut down and this action should have been a red flag to hold Tuesday’s meeting in a larger room.
“Administrators are always encouraging us saying, ‘your generation doesn’t vote, you’re not active,’” Wills said. “And then we get active and they say we are too active because we challenge their agenda. And so I’m saying which is it? Do you want us to be active in participating in the democracy that affects us?”
Wills believes that protesting students should not be “a scapegoat for what happened.”
“I’m not here to demonize the police,” Wills said. “But what they did was excessive and wrong and they’re not going to blame students for that. That’s not okay. If the students had barged in the meeting, there would have been no violence. They act like we are going to hurt them. No, we just want to show that we just don’t agree with this.”
Tsang informed the student body that participants in the protest who were affected by the actions taken by the school police and needed hospitalization would be able to “submit medical bills to the Student Affairs Office.”
“Just because they may pay for my medical bills doesn’t take away from the pain that this brought,” Delgado said.
Wills said no one was advocating violence.
“This is a peaceful protest,” Wills said. “We are actually outside helping one another, feeding one another. There’s no better fulfillment than to help the common good.”
When Wills was asked who was to blame for this incident, he said “Let’s let the whole world decide.”