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Students Take Plea Bargain on Charges From Campus Protests

Courts: The 15 had blocked access in March to a main office at Claremont Colleges. They were trying to stop construction on an undeveloped lot.

September 05, 2001|PAM NOLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifteen college students arrested during protests against the Claremont University Consortium in March pleaded guilty in Pomona on Tuesday to reduced charges and were sentenced to community service.

The students had protested plans to build a new campus on part of the Bernard Biological Field Station, 87 acres of undeveloped land in Claremont. The consortium, the coordinating body of the Claremont Colleges, gave 11.4 acres of the field station to the newest college, the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, the seventh on campus.

The students from Pitzer, Pomona and Scripps colleges faced one misdemeanor charge each of willful disruption for blocking access to one of the campus' main business offices for 28 hours.

The court agreed to reduce the charges to infractions in exchange for the guilty pleas.

"I feel part of it is making an example out of us," said Ruth Cusick, 20, a junior at Scripps College with a dual major in politics and economics. "On some level it's about the field station, but on another it's a lot larger, dealing with the power structure of the Claremont Colleges."

Still, the plea bargain approved by Pomona Superior Court Judge Thomas Peterson "worked out OK," Cusick said. "We don't want the issue to be about us and our treatment. We want to start working on the campaign in a real way, trying to find real venues to protect the field station."

To some, the consortium's reaction to the nonviolent protest, sending officers from several police departments to physically remove students, is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

"What I'm upset and outraged about is the message to the students is we have zero tolerance for demonstrations," said Dr. Michael A. Newman, an internist in Washington, D.C., whose daughter, Rachel, was among those charged. Rachel Newman is teaching English in China.

This was the first time since the 1960s that police have been used to break up protests on a Claremont college campus. No police were called during recent protests over other issues, including demonstrations involving several hundred students on behalf of food workers trying to start a union. Students took over administration buildings at Pitzer and Pomona colleges in spring 2000.

"What's a college all about except learning how to be part of a citizen community that makes judgments and gets involved?" Newman said. "The message that the university sends, to me, is: 'We have no tolerance for dissent.' "

In a prepared statement, Brenda Barham Hill, chief executive of the consortium, said the students were not arrested for expressing their opinions, but for ignoring verbal and written warnings "of the consequences of denying access for over 60 . . . employees to their place of business."

The settlement has no implications for future protests by students, she said. Hill said she will continue to "support the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly."

But Hill also said in the statement that she will honor the demonstration policy approved by all campus presidents, which prohibits activities "in which there is a deliberate disruption or impedance of access to regular activities."

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