Santa Monica College campus is still regrouping from the chaos of Tuesday night when some 100 student protesters tried to force their way into a board of trustees meeting to voice their opposition to tuition increases. "Let us in!" they shouted at campus police blocking the door. Michael Burnett, a chemistry student present that night, says the crowd looked like it was about to push through the security cordon. "One officer was knocked off balance," Burnett says. "He went into an alcove and came back and sprayed an orange spray indiscriminately." "Without warning, one of the officers sprayed pepper spray on the crowd," recalls Jasmine Delgado, 19.
Some two dozen students were reportedly sprayed. Gas filled the hallways, and students ran away shouting and wiping their eyes. "I tried approaching the door and a police officer threw me to the ground," says Delgado. Her arm is now in a sling, bruised but not broken. Three students were taken to the hospital, although no serious injuries were reported.
The incident sparked outrage and angry criticism that campus security had failed to heed the lessons of the pepper spray incident at the University of California Davis last November. Santa Monica College President Chui Tsang, however, defended the campus police, saying the spray was used to "preserve public and personal safety" after protesters "engaged in unlawful conduct," according to a statement. It paralleled UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi position after the November incident. She has refused calls for her resignation even as that spraying became a rallying point for the Occupy movement. A report on the incident commissioned by UC officials is due later this month.
The clash at Santa Monica, however, obscures to the issue that inspired the protest in the first place: how cash-strapped community colleges are increasingly unable to offer classes to students who need them. Santa Monica's response to the problem has been unprecedented. The college is planning a controversial pilot program that would charge higher tuition for some classes this summer, giving students guaranteed spots in coveted courses if they are willing to pay more for them. Under the plan, which was approved by the school in March, the higher-priced classes will cost $180 per credit unit, or $540 for a typical 3-unit course, compared with the normal state-subsidized cost of $46 per credit unit.
The novelty of the plan and the controversy surrounding it may make Santa Monica a bellwether for how other community colleges across the nation deal with budget cuts and increasing demand for classes. "If Santa Monica gets its way, it could be a trendsetter," says W. Norton Grubb, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education. The question at hand is whether the plan threatens the fundamental mission of community colleges: to keep tuitions as low as possible to give educational opportunities to those who can't afford to attend a university. The protesters say it does, while Santa Monica officials say their plan is a good way of dealing with the current challenges.
The state government, however, seems to be on the side of the students. Jack Scott, the chancellor of California's community college system, may even take Santa Monica college to court over the issue. "The Chancellor is concerned about the impact that a two tiered educational fee system would have on the ability of low-income students to reach their goals," said Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications of the California Community Colleges.
But times have been tough in budget-strapped California. Course offerings at community colleges across California have fallen between 5% and 15% since 2008, at a time when demand for classes is increasing in part because a slow economy has many unemployed people seeking retraining and education as they wait out the downturn. As a result, California community colleges turned away 133,000 students in the 2009-10 school year and total enrollment has fallen to 2.6 million students from 2.9 million three years ago, according to Chancellor Scott's office.
"A tragic number of students are currently being turned away from community colleges," Tsang said in his statement, defending Santa Monica's pilot program. "The intent of the program is to immediately increase the number of total classroom seats available and provide a way for students to make progress towards their goals." Tsang declined an interview request from TIME.
The debacle isn't unique to California. "Community colleges have been under tremendous pressures over the last few years because of double digit enrollment surges and declining state support," says Norma Kent, senior vice president for communications at the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington. "They have also been the focus of rising expectations to have more students complete a degree or other credential. It's a very complex issue."
Critics say the Santa Monica plan would create an unfair system putting poorer students at a disadvantage. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, average tuition at community colleges nationwide is currently $2,713 per year, which is significantly lower than universities. But students fear that figure could rise if more schools follow Santa Monica's lead. "It's privatizing education," Delgado says. "This is a public institution, not for people to pay out of pocket. This isn't something we'll accept."
The students may have bought themselves some time, at the expense of being pepper sprayed. The melee prompted Chancellor Scott to ask Santa Monica College on Wednesday to put a hold on its plan. "He was obviously concerned about what happened and feels putting it on hold would allow them to fully explore the legality of the proposal," Feist said. The outcome will affect more than just Santa Monica College. Schools from around the country will be watching.