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Santa Monica College officials investigate use of pepper spray by campus police

Two college students were injured after getting pepper sprayed while rallying at a Board of Trustees meeting at Santa Monica College.
Two college students were injured after getting pepper sprayed while rallying at a Board of Trustees meeting at Santa Monica College.
mylocationscouts/Flickr/Creative Commons

Officials at Santa Monica College are investigating an incident in which campus police used pepper spray on dozens of students Tuesday night as they disrupted a Board of Trustees meeting to protest a new plan to offer a second tier of higher-cost classes.

More than 100 students disrupted the 7 p.m. meeting when they "stormed into the board room and started shouting" to protest the plan, said Bruce Smith, a spokesman for Santa Monica College.

"Our police made a judgement call that this is a safety issue," Smith said. "They evacuated the board room, they did use pepper spray, and eventually things calmed down and they resumed the meeting...We'll be investigating this and have a statement out as soon as possible."

Firefighters reported to the scene at 7:24 p.m. and "decontaminated" about 30 people affected by pepper spray, said Santa Monica Fire Department Division Chief Jose Torres. Three people were transported to a hospital to be treated for minor injuries, Torres said. 

Santa Monica Police officers were also called to the scene to help with crowd control and perimeter security, said Santa Monica Police Sgt. Richard Lewis.

Trustee David Finkel called the use of pepper spray a "black eye" on the college, the Santa Monica Patch reports.

"It may be that you will conclude... that it was an inescapable necessity, but I’m not convinced of that," he said.

The students were protesting college plans to start offering courses — priced at roughly five times the current $36 per unit fee at $180 to $200 a unit — this summer. The move is believed to be a first for such a public institution. Officials have said the classes will help the college serve the increased demand for courses in a time when severe state cuts to funding have forced schools to pare down their offerings.

California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott has said he wants the state Attorney General's Office to look at the legality of a Santa Monica College program.

"The Chancellor's Office has previously indicated to colleges that we believe that step would be illegal," said Scott in a recent talk to Pasadena City College students. "There was an attempt to change the law which failed last year, and now Santa Monica College has chosen to go alone and do it anyway. Frankly, we will seek an opinion from the Attorney General's Office as to whether or not that is legal or not. If it's legal then they can do it. If it's not legal then they cannot."

The plan was approved by Santa Monica College's governing board in March to try and offset the effects of severe cuts to state funding and heavy demand. The 34,000-student college has had to cut 1,100 class sections, or roughly 15 percent of its more than 7,400 since 2008. This year their funding was reduced by $11 million and it is looking at another possible $5 million cut under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget plan if a tax initiative is not approved by voters in November.

"We have had cuts since 2008, and every year we think that it will turn around the next year, we were hoping that would happen, and so we've been waiting and it hasn't happen," said Santa Monica College President Chui L. Tsang in a recent interview. "Our students have been waiting to get back in the doors for a long time, and we can't just sit here. We can do two things, we can just sit around and wait for the economy to come back, or we can do something to try to help them."

Starting this summer, the college plans to offer about 50 courses at the higher tiered price; in the summer it plans to offer another 200 such courses. Fees, which are set by the Legislature, will rise to $46 per unit this summer. Unlike under the CSU or UC systems, the revenue is sent back to the state.

In this case, the higher-fee classes will support themselves, university officials said.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).