SANTA MONICA, Calif. – The dozens of student protesters who were pepper-sprayed by police at a California community college weren’t just angry about not getting into a meeting of school trustees.
They were fuming about a new Santa Monica College plan that would let students who did not get into a needed, high-demand course take the class anyway – but only if they paid hundreds of dollars more.
On Tuesday night, the emotions boiled over at the meeting. And a day later, the state agency that oversees the state’s community colleges called on the attorney general to judge whether the plan was legal. Agency officials also called for the college to temporarily halt the program.
The college has said the summer pilot program is an attempt to create new ways to fund some popular state-required classes in an era of declining state education aid. Critics say the plan will create a caste system favoring wealthy students and runs contrary to the idea of community colleges as a gateway into the middle class.
Students feel they are being backed into a corner. They feel like they have been left out of the discussion, said Joshua Scuteri, a student trustee. The feeling on campus is it’s like the Alamo.
The school is one of the state’s largest two-year colleges, with an enrollment of roughly 30,000 students. About 1,100 classes out of 7,430 have been slashed since 2008.
As a result, students can’t get the courses they need to graduate. They have held protests before but wanted to be heard and seen by trustees Tuesday night, students said. They were upset because only a handful of them were allowed into the meeting.
The clash, parts of which were videotaped and posted online, occurred in a narrow hallway packed with shouting protesters. The videos show a chaotic scene with some struggles between them and police.
Jack Scott, California Community Colleges system chancellor, spoke with Santa Monica College President Chui Tsang, asking that the new enrollment plan be put on hold, but Tsang was non-committal, said Paul Feist, the vice chancellor.
The plan involves the formation of a non-profit foundation that would offer courses for about $600 each, or about $200 a unit. The extra courses at the higher rate would help students who were not able to get into the full, in-demand classes.
Community colleges have long been a haven for students unable to afford the rising costs at universities, but the institutions also have been hampered by budget cuts.