Santa Monica College students speak out Wednesday against a proposed two-tier class payment plan that some feel is unfair. Students were protesting a day after campus police sprayed pepper spray at a crowd gathered for the Board of Trustees meeting. (photo by Ashley Archibald)

SMC — Santa Monica College officials are investigating the use of pepper spray by campus police on a group of students Tuesday who were part of a protest in opposition to a controversial plan to offer summer classes at cost to those students willing to pay full price.

Three students were hospitalized. No arrests were made.

Over 100 student protesters arrived at a SMC Board of Trustees meeting that night to speak against self-funded classes that would cost four times the amount of a regular community college class.

Only 20 students at a time were allowed into a board room to speak to trustees, and, according to a release by SMC President Chui Tsang, students waiting in the hall tried to push past campus police, at which point one unidentified officer used pepper spray “to preserve public and personal safety.”

By all accounts, that’s when all hell broke loose.

Footage uploaded to the video-sharing website YouTube shows protesters fleeing and holding their faces after an officer used pepper spray, hitting some directly and impacting 30 total.

They washed their eyes out with water and milk outside the business building to relieve the burning.

Fire alarms were pulled, and the Santa Monica Police Department was called in at 7:19 p.m. to set up a perimeter around the campus to keep order on the streets as large groups of students left the campus.

An hour after the conflict began, the trustees meeting resumed.

Trustee Rob Rader promised a thorough look into what happened that evening, and whether or not the use of pepper spray was justified.

“We are going to investigate the actions of our officers,” Rader said. “We are not going to shy away from that. There is going to be nothing swept under the rug here. It will be fully transparent and scrutinized.”

Use of force in a political protest should be “very rare,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“The circumstances under which officers can legally pepper spray students engaging in peaceful political protest are extremely narrow,” Arulanantham said. “In light of that, we hope that there’s a thorough investigation and that any wrongdoing by security or law enforcement personnel is punished accordingly.”

Two sides to the story

Students gathered on the steps of the SMC Library on Wednesday to decry what they called “police brutality.”

Officers didn’t give any kind of warning before they unleashed the pepper spray, said Samaria Gomez, a member of the Student Organizing Committee that coordinated the protest.

Her sister was one of three hospitalized after the incident.

“Why should I have to feel marginalized by police here?” she said. “Get the cops off campus!”

Ivette Martinez, another student, said that she’d been sprayed in the face and was also burned on her legs by the pepper spray.

“You see this on TV, but you think, ‘It’s not going to happen on our campus,’” Martinez said.

Ernie Sevilla, president of the Alpha Gamma Sigma honors society, told a different story.

Sevilla attended Tuesday’s meeting to speak against the self-funded classes, and got caught next to the officer that used the pepper spray.

Although Sevilla could not condone the pain inflicted on students, he felt that they left the officer little choice.

“He was pinned against the door,” Sevilla said. He saw the officer reach for the pepper spray. At that point Sevilla covered his own face before trying to get out of the building.

According to Sevilla, milk in gallon jugs was waiting for protesters when they exited the building, suggesting that there had been prior planning. Milk contains chemicals that help release and wash away the active ingredient in pepper spray that causes burning, capsaicin.

Others who were present, including Nnaemeka Alozie, SMC student and campaign manager for David William Steinman, a candidate for the 33rd Congressional District, say that simply wasn’t true.

“It came 15 minutes later,” Alozie said. “I was writhing on the floor in pain.”

Students also accused the Board of Trustees of inciting the violence by holding the meeting in a small room rather than at a location that could accommodate all of the onlookers.

According to Tsang’s statement, an overflow room was available from the outset of the meeting where students could watch the conversation in real time and wait to comment before the board.

The board has used room 117 in the business building for years to conduct meetings, said Rader, an SMC trustee.

Rather than try to cut off conversation on the controversial topic of “self-funded” classes, the board meeting was specifically set up to gather commentary from the students and the community, Rader said.

“I don’t think that there is any person on my board that did not want to hear what people had to say,” Rader said. “We are certainly not afraid of criticism. We know it’s not an easy decision, and we share some of [their] reservations.”

At the heart of the matter

There’s plenty of criticism to go around.

Students dislike the plan, which provides classes during the summer at $180 per unit rather than the $46 per unit cost that will be charged during the regular school year.

They call it the privatization of the public education system, and say that it unfairly discriminates against low-income and minority students that rely on the community college system to transfer to four-year universities.

And, say state officials, it may not even be legal.

Jack Scott, the chancellor of the California Community College system, referred the question of a two-tiered fee structure to the California Attorney General’s Office late last month.

The chancellor believes that the proposal doesn’t fall within the boundaries of the education code, said Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications.

“That type of contract education provisions are reserved for employers who contract with the community college and pay for the instruction to upskill their workers or train workers to work for them,” Feist said. “That’s been our position and we still believe in that.”

Given that the community colleges in California have lost $809 million over the last three years and 300,000 students, it’s clear that colleges are looking for ways to make do with what they have and still get students into the classroom, Feist said.

“We just don’t necessarily agree with this approach,” he said.

They hope to get a response from the Attorney General’s Office next week.

Self-funded classes seem almost universally distasteful, but very few people have any ideas of how else to provide educational opportunities in the public realm.

A lot is riding on a tax initiative on the November ballot. Without it, SMC will take another $5 million hit.

Students are pushing for a reduction of on-campus police and administrator salaries, which they say have gotten an additional $2 million over the last three years as 1,000 class sections were cut.

The SMC Faculty Association members ratified a tentative collective bargaining agreement with the district Tuesday that increases all faculty salary schedules by 1.25 percent. In July 2012, all full-time faculty will receive a one-time stipend of $1,000 each.

Other salary schedules will also see additional increases.

The expected costs will, however, be offset by a $1.6 million decrease in one benefits package, said college spokesman Bruce Smith.

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