Blog: The Educated Reporter

Campus Cops Pepper Spray Community College Protestors

Protestors angry about a California community college’s tuition hike proposal to charge more for top-demand courses were pepper-sprayed by campus police after they tried to force their way into a trustees’ meeting, raising serious concerns about just how much stress the state’s higher education system can take.

As the video of the incident at Santa Monica College indicates, this episode appears to be a vastly different scenario than what unfolded at the University of California, Davis when police used pepper spray on students who were peaceably taking part in an Occupy Wall Street-inspired campus demonstration. At Tuesday’s confrontation in Santa Monica, there is pushing, shouting and a surge toward the doorway of the meeting room before police sprayed the crowd.

However, “you would think after the outrage resulting from the [UC-Davis] incident, people would be incredibly circumspect on how avidly they used pepper spray to break up an unruly discussion,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., an advocacy organization that supports First Amendment campus activities.

The pepper spray should stay in the holster unless it’s necessary to avoid even more severe violence, LoMonte said. At worst the students in the Santa Monica video appeared to be “a little rude,” but it’s not obvious that the pepper spray was warranted, LoMonte said.

While the incident was unfortunate, “it’s always positive to see students getting passionate about causes on campus,” LoMonte said. “They may have gotten too passionate here, but it’s good that they’re engaged in something other than playing video games in their dorms. They’re the consumers, and the fact that they are making their voices heard to the trustees is something we ought to be encouraging.”

Whether the Santa Monica campus police were justified in their show of force remains to be seen. In the meantime, the incident serves as a vivid reminder of just how bad things have gotten for California’s higher education system.

“We’re not talking about one bad budget year or just one tough semester,” said Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed. “It’s been a long haul of bad news, and many students feel they are at their limits.”

Once the open-access entry point to higher education, community college systems are struggling with a huge influx of non-traditional students. Many of them are working adults looking for short-term certification programs in order to find new careers or hold on to the ones they have. Once relegated to second-class status behind institutions that award four-year and graduate degrees, policymakers at the national level have been putting significant focus on community colleges as a potentially critical element in the nation’s economic recovery.

At the same time, community colleges are being flooded with students from four-year universities who find themselves shut out of oversubscribed basic classes at their own campuses. As a result, there is a new element of tension for community college administrators across the country, but particularly in California where cuts to higher education funding have been devastating.

In February, a California task force assembled to address these issues released its recommendations for overhauling the state’s community college system. Among their suggestions: community colleges should severely restrict the number of majors that are offered; that students should be required to complete a long-term academic plan before beginning their studies; and students should be required to complete any remedial classes at the start of their studies. The report also called for better coordination between the K-12 education system and community colleges in efforts to reduce the need for remediation and improve completion rates.

The bulk of those recommendations have been met with sharp criticism by educators throughout the state, including Dean Murakami, vice president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. The task force should have focused on “developing counseling and instructional infrastructure to guide students through college,” Murakami wrote this week in an opinion piece for the Sacramento Bee. What was instead delivered was “a confusing set of recommendations that’s short on promise and long on punishment,” Murakami wrote. “If enacted as is, it will frustrate the dreams of tens of thousands of students. Once they drop out – presto – our numbers magically improve. Problem solved.”

The recommendations do seem to skate perilously close to a kind of academic triage. With the shortage of seats, it makes sense for higher education institutions at all levels to focus resources on students who are to most likely to benefit. But how does that fit with the open-access mission that has been the defining hallmark of community colleges?


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