California college investigates police use of pepper spray on students

Santa Monica College students are outraged after campus police used pepper spray to break up a protest Tuesday.

Story highlights

  • "Insanity. Overreaction. It started out just chanting," one student says
  • Santa Monica College campus police pepper-sprayed student protesters
  • College president: Protesters "engaged in unlawful conduct," but no arrests were made
  • Students were protesting a tuition increase under an experimental summer program
Santa Monica College officials in California have launched an investigation into a raucous student protest at a board of trustees meeting in which campus police used pepper spray on demonstrators, sending three of them to a hospital, the college president said Wednesday.
The students weren't allowed into the overflowing meeting room Tuesday evening and were demonstrating in a hallway against a summer pilot program creating two tiers of tuition when the pepper spraying incident occurred, said Paul Alvarez Jr., the multimedia editor for the campus newspaper who videotaped the incident.
Three people were taken to a hospital, and about 30 other students needed treatment for pepper spray, said Santa Monica Fire Department Capt. Judah Mitchell. The fire department set up a decontamination unit that consisted of a fire hose with clear water, Mitchell said. Santa Monica is a coastal city adjacent to Los Angeles.
A number of the protesters "engaged in unlawful conduct," such as setting off fire alarms, but campus police "exercised restraint and made no arrests," college President Chui Tsang said in a statement.
He said the protesters in the corridor chose not to enter an overflow room. In all, about 100 people protested the board meeting, he said.
"When some of these demonstrators used force to enter the board room proper, and had overrun the door and the personnel stationed at the door, there was one discharge of pepper spray used by a SMC police officer to preserve public and personal safety. Unfortunately, a number of bystanders, including college staff, students and other police personnel were affected," Tsang said.
"Santa Monica College regrets that a group of people chose to disrupt a public meeting in an unlawful manner," he added.
Students pepper-sprayed while protesting
Students pepper-sprayed while protesting


    Students pepper-sprayed while protesting


Students pepper-sprayed while protesting 01:58
In March, the the two-year college's board approved a summer session pilot program to self-fund extra courses in an effort to increase total classroom seats and provide a way for students to take courses they need, Tsang said.
The program augments 700 regularly scheduled state-subsidized classes at $46 per credit unit for California residents, he said.
About 50 extra self-funded classes will be offered at actual cost, which translates to $180 per credit unit, or $540 for a typical three-unit course, he said.
That cost "is far below the tuition rate at the state's other public educational systems," Tsang said. "The college's action comes at a time when SMC is confronted with the greatest budget crisis ever to face higher education in California."
California has been grappling with a budget deficit that promises to result in massive cuts to higher education and course cancellations. Tuition for the California State University system rose 21% this year, to just over $9,000 for in-state residents. Gov. Jerry Brown's office has forecast a shortfall of $9.2 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, while state budget analysts warn the problem could be billions worse.
Brown's budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins in July, includes more spending cuts, particularly to social services. If his plan to put a temporary tax increase before voters in November fails, education funding would be cut again.
Two students who said they were pepper-sprayed described campus police as overreacting.
"Insanity. Overreaction. It started out just chanting and we're getting our point across," said Christine Deal, 20, who said an officer grabbed her neck. "Things escalated with the campus police, and kids got pepper-sprayed and put in choke holds and thrown on the ground -- sent to the emergency room."
"I think if they were going to pepper-spray that we should have been given some kind of warning," she added.
Kayleigh Wade, 19, said she was protesting the summer tuition pricing because "It's very classist."
"It's making the classes divide, and it's going to cause more problems in the long run so it's preposterous to me that this is even being considered a solution," Wade said.
She said the pepper spray incident, as well as the summer tuition plan, damages the school's reputation.
"It prides itself on being this diverse, progressive campus or whatever, and this completely stifles that reputation," Wade said.
Alvarez, the student journalist at The Corsair campus newspaper, called the spraying incident an injustice.
"That made everything more chaotic than it should have been," Alvarez said.
A 4-year-old girl was among those stung by the pepper spray, Alvarez said.