SANTA MONICA, California (Reuters) - The president of a California college defended on Wednesday the use of pepper spray by campus police against students protesting higher tuition for extra summer-school classes, an incident that left as many as 30 people overcome by the caustic substance.
The melee that erupted on Tuesday night at a board of trustees meeting at Santa Monica College is under investigation, college President Chui L. Tsang said in a statement.
Footage of the incident on local KTLA television news showed dozens of shrieking students clutching their hands over their eyes and pushing their way past police as they tried to flee through a hallway.
In his account of the incident, Tsang said a college police officer unleashed the pepper spray "to preserve public and personal safety" when demonstrators forced their way into the board room.
"Unfortunately, a number of bystanders, including college staff, students and other police personnel, were affected," his statement said. "Although a number of participants at the meeting engaged in unlawful conduct, Santa Monica College police personnel exercised restraint and made no arrests."
It followed a similar incident in November when campus police at the University of California, Davis, pepper-sprayed a group of student protesters during an anti-Wall Street demonstration in a confrontation captured on video and widely broadcast on TV and the Internet.
The UC Davis chancellor came under heavy fire for that incident, and a report on the investigation was due for release later this month.
David Steinman, a Green Party candidate for Congress, said he attended the Santa Monica College protest with at least 200 students and was sprayed after the crowd rushed into the meeting room, which was too small to hold all who wanted to attend.
"Once (the protesters) realized the meeting was starting without them, they said to heck with this we're going to shut down this meeting," Steinman said.
In the chaos that followed, two officers who had been at the door were pushed against the wall, he said. One of the officers, a sergeant, then held a container over the heads of the students and sprayed it, Steinman said.
A counselor at the college, Patti Del Valle, said the students were demonstrating against a two-tiered fee system due to go into effect this summer that would significantly raise the cost of attending the community college.
"I was standing outside the Board of Trustees meeting asking a police officer if he could go inside and ask if they could move the meeting to a bigger room, and out of nowhere I breathed in and there was this pepper smell," Marjohnny Torres-Nativi, 22, a member of the student government, told Reuters.
"Then I saw police officers tackle the (student) vice-president in front of me, while she was already crying because she was already pepper-sprayed," he said. "I saw people on the floor choking."
Tsang said the new fee structure would raise tuition from $138 for a typical three-credit course to $540 for roughly 50 "extra self-funded classes" being offered this summer. He said the higher fees were necessitated by "the greatest budget crisis ever to face higher education in California."
The board took an hour-long recess after the pepper-spraying incident before resuming its meeting.
Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Jackie Frank and Paul Simao