SANTA MONICA, Calif. • Police at a California college pepper-sprayed as many as 30 demonstrators after students angry over a plan to offer high-priced courses tried to push their way into a trustees meeting, authorities said.
"Let us in, let us in," protesters shouted on video posted online Tuesday. "No cuts, no fees, education should be free."
Santa Monica College 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.
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.
Marioly Gomez 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.
"It was the judgment of police that the crowd was getting out of hand and it was a safety issue," college spokesman Bruce Smith said. He said he believed it was the first time pepper spray had been used to subdue students on campus.
The new plan involves the formation of a nonprofit foundation that would offer core courses for about $600 each, or about $200 per unit — about four times the current price. The extra courses at the higher rate would help students who were not able to get into in-demand classes that filled up quickly.
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.
Lawyers for the college researched the issue and concluded that it passed legal muster, school officials say.
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.
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 University of California, Davis, in November drew worldwide attention. In that footage, 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.
Firefighters were called to the Santa Monica campus around 7:20 p.m. Five people were evaluated at the scene and two were taken to a hospital. Their conditions were not known, but the injuries were not believed to be serious, fire officials said.
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.
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