By Gary Walker
Santa Monica College administrators could have done much more to diffuse a clash between students and the campus police last year, says an expert in crowd control.
Paul Wertheimer, a nationally recognized expert on crowd safety and the owner of Crowd Management Strategies, took issue with a report released Jan. 18 that criticized the behavior of many of the student protestors at an April 3 board of trustees meeting, as well as one of the campus security officers.
Students seeking to enter the board room grappled with police, who then pepper sprayed the crowd that gathered outside. The college subsequently ordered an investigation of the incident, where approximately 30 people were treated for decontamination from effects of pepper spray by paramedics from the Santa Monica Fire Department.
“I believe the panel was designed to protect the administration’s role in this incident,” Wertheimer asserted.
“They didn’t find fault in anything that they did.”
SMC President Chui L. Tsang accepted the results of the investigation.
“Santa Monica College is an outstanding learning institution, open, diverse, and supportive of the free exchange of ideas,” he said. “I am heartened by the thorough examination and detailed recommendations provided by the review panel regarding the April 3, 2012, protest events. I thank them for their work and guidance.
“I have accepted all facts, findings, and conclusions in the review panel report.”
The investigation also faults the SMC Student Affairs Division for not assisting in the students’ decision to demonstrate at the board meeting and the campus police for its operations plan, which the panel members called “inadequate.”
The review panel also found that one officer engaged in an inappropriate use of force and called the conduct of several of the student demonstrators “unacceptable.” The report also recommended “additional training and protocols” for the campus police force.
The official documents quote one student, Natalia Toscano, as mischaracterizing the situation at the board meeting, asserting that campus police were “cracking down” on how many students would be able to address the board and thus possibly creating an atmosphere that lent itself to a confrontation.
“We are going to give our 17 speaker cards to whoever has priority to go inside and the rest of us… well, we just gotta bombard,” she is quoted as saying, despite having been told by police that the board would allow as many students and their supports to speak as they wished.
In addition, members of the panel offered 13 recommendations for a variety of areas and for college departments, which Tsang says he will implement.
School officials dispute any attempt to absolve themselves of any blame in the incident.
“The recommendations are recommendations to improve how to plan for these events and to educate those who were involved (in the April 3 event) so that they understand the boundaries regarding free speech,” said Donald Girard, SMC communications director.
SMC was thrust onto the national stage last year when, in an effort to confront the statewide budget cuts to education over the last several years, the SMC Board of Trustees considered creating a series of self-funded courses during the summer and winter sessions, which student groups denounced as a ploy to create a system of contract education.
The trustees later voted not to implement the contract education system of classes.
Wertheimer did not fault Sgt. B.B Williams of the campus police department for his decision to use pepper spray on the student demonstrators.
“I wouldn’t pass judgment on whether he was right or wrong,” Wertheimer said, adding that he agreed with the panel’s report that some of the students were “provocateurs” who caused the incident to escalate.
But he took issue with what he sees as a blunder by the panelists for failing to point out how college administrators could have possibly dampened some of the students’ ardor before the board meeting.
“They did not comment on (the administration’s) failure to engage the students (through discourse) prior to the meeting,” Wertheimer said. “They completely absolved themselves of any wrongdoing.”
SMC Associated Students President Parker Jean also took issue with what he thinks was the panel’s failure to spotlight areas where the college’s administration was deficient.
“They could have reached out to us before voting on such a controversial issue,” Jean said. “It was a very top-down process.”
The report indicates that Tsang, SMC Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Tuitasi and the college’s counsel Robert Myers met with SMC Police Chief Albert Vasquez at approximately noon on April 3 to discuss plans for the meeting that night. Vasquez stated that he had no plans to use less than lethal weapons for the purposes of crowd control.
According to those who conducted the review, the chief did not pass his plans regarding non lethal weapons on to his department’s personnel.
Dr. Nancy Greenstein, a member of the panel and chair of the SMC District Board of Trustees, said one of the goals of the review was to separate what was done properly during the incident as well as what exacerbated the confrontation.
“What we tried to do was acknowledge the good and what was problematic,” she explained.
Girard also dismissed the notion that the college had not sought to address student anger with the contract education plan prior to the April confrontation.
“The April 3 board meeting has similar parallels to the meeting in March, where students spoke with a lot of emotion (on their rejection of contract education),” he said. “There were many forums prior to the April board meeting where the board of trustees participated at length.”
Jean said a key catalyst for the pepper spraying incident happened at the meeting in March where the student trustee representative offered a motion to postpone the two-tired system.
It was then placed online, which contributed to the students’ fury because they felt they had reached an agreement with the administration to postpone the implementation of contract education until April.
“It was very clear that people were very angry with the program after the March meeting,” the student leader said.
Wertheimer also said it appeared the panel did not seek guidance from critical sources that could have helped them put together a more comprehensive report. “They did not seek any expertise or experts in crowd control,” he noted.
Jean thinks this is an opportunity for all sides to consider how to address similar situations in the future.
“There are lessons to be learned for everyone, and if we are going to spread blame, then there needs to be blame spread on everybody, including administration,” he said.