Campus police pepper-sprayed as many as 30 Santa Monica College students Tuesday night as they disrupted a meeting of the Board of Trustees, which is moving forward with a controversial plan to offer a second tier of classes not subsidized by the state.
Santa Monica College officials said they are investigating the incident.
More than 100 outraged students interrupted the meeting with shouts of "shame on you!" directed at the trustees. Campus police tried to limit the number of students inside the board meeting room to about a dozen while many more watched live video from an adjacent overflow room.
Loud chants and yells from a group that tried to storm the board meeting room—and the police response—halted the meeting for nearly two hours as the building was evacuated.
Paramedics treated five students for pepper spray exposure and transported two more to a local hospital, according to Santa Monica Fire Capt. Judah Mitchell.
Mitchell said the initial call to his department was for "up to 30 people for pepper spray [exposure]."
The students ran out of the building screaming as the halls filled with vapor. Many of the them congregated outside the Business Administration building, where one student used a megaphone to mobilize others. Some called the police response "police brutality."
Trustee David Finkel called the use of pepper spray a "black eye" on the college.
"It may be that you will conclude... that it was an inescapable necessity, but I’m not convinced of that," he told administrators late Tuesday night.
The meeting resumed at 9 p.m. but there was not enough space in the overflow room to accommodate every one who remained on campus to protest the school's new funding plan, further aggravating students.
"I know some things happened tonight that I don’t like and a lot of you guys didn’t like," Board of Trustees Chairwoman Margaret Quiñones-Perez told the students when resuming the meeting, which she conducted with a fellow trustee from the overflow room.
The students called on the college district's superintendent to hold a campus-wide referendum to recall the two-tier funding plan. The school is gearing up to use private funding to restore 50 courses this summer set to be eliminated in the wake of severe state budget cuts.
The cost to enroll in the classes would be about $180, significantly higher than the fees that California students pay——but less than at California state universities and University of California, as well as for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix.
Students outraged by the proposal call it "privatization" and believe it will separate the wealthy from the poor. They want the Board of Trustees to instead demand the restoration of state funds.
The students held rallies across campus before the 7 p.m. meeting got underway. They chanted, "No cuts, no fees, education should be free!"
Santa Monica College Public Information Officer Bruce Smith said college officials were prepared for a big student turnout, that's why they set up the overflow room, but they didn't expect the ruckus.
Student Christine Deal told the board that campus police put her in a chokehold before she was sprayed. Another woman's arm was put in a sling.
Only one campus police officer was believed to have used pepper spray.
Paul Alvarez Jr., the multimedia editor for the college's student-run newspaper, the Corsair, said he saw three campus police officers "grabbing" and "shoving" students for about two minutes before resorting to pepper spray.
"I got pepper-sprayed in the face. That was my fault, I take responsibility for that," one student later told the board.
Student Sasha Whitaker, 21, was at the meeting protesting the proposed system when the spraying occurred. He ran in the opposite direction of the spray zone and was unaffected.
"Yesterday, [Trustee David] Finkel said he represents the people who put him here, the voters, and today the board members said they represent the college. So I want to know who represents us, the students," Whitaker said outside the Business Administration building.
Whitaker said he was compelled to attend the meeting because "it's not just me; my children will be affected" by the board's decisions.
City News Service reports no arrests were made.
— City News Sevice and Patch editor Diana Swartz contributed to this report.