Anger over rising tuition and school budget cuts boiled over as students across the country staged rowdy demonstrations that led to clashes with police and the rush-hour shutdown of a major freeway in California.
Students, teachers, parents and school employees rallied and marched at college campuses, public parks and government buildings in several U.S. cities Thursday in what was called the March 4 Day of Action to Defend Public Education.
In Oakland, protesters evaded police and walked onto Interstate 880 near downtown Oakland just before 5 p.m., forcing the closure of the freeway in both directions for more than an hour and causing traffic to back up for miles.
Police arrested more than 150 people who blocked the freeway after breaking off from a peaceful rally at Oakland City Hall, said Officer Sam Morgan, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.
|Student protestors march on the University of California at Berkeley campus Thursday, March 4, 2010, in Berkeley, Calif|
One protester suffered serious injuries after jumping from the elevated freeway while officers were making arrests, authorities said.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee police arrested at least 15 people protesting tuition hikes after demonstrators tried to enter an administrative building to deliver petitions to the chancellor. When police turned them away, some protesters threw punches and ice chunks, university spokesman Tom Luljak said.
Faced with plunging tax revenue and massive budget shortfalls, states have slashed funding to K-12 schools and universities. In response, school districts are laying off teachers, expanding class sizes and scrapping academic programs, while many colleges have cancelled classes, furloughed instructors and raised tuition.
Experts say schools and colleges could face more severe financial problems over the next few years as they drain federal stimulus money that temporarily prevented widespread layoffs and classroom cuts.
In Southern California, police arrested several people, including one faculty member, who blocked traffic Thursday afternoon after a protest at California State University, Northridge, said university spokesman Vance Peterson.
At the University of California, Davis, about 75 police officers were called to the scene after nearly 300 students tried to block a freeway onramp near campus Thursday, said university spokeswoman Claudia Morain.
A tense standoff between students and police ended police after fired pepper spray to disperse the crowd and one female student was arrested, Morain said.
Protesters at UC Santa Cruz blocked campus gates and smashed the windows of a car while its uninjured driver was inside. University officials urged students and employees to avoid the campus because of safety concerns.
At UC Berkeley, a small group of protesters formed a human chain blocking a main gate to the campus. Later in the day, hundreds gathered rallied in a busy intersection near Sproul Plaza before marching to downtown Oakland.
Senior Eugene Pascual, 22, said he was worried about rising college costs after the 10-campus UC system raised fees by more than 30 percent this year.
"I'm afraid of how much my parents will be paying for my sister's education," Pascual said. "My dad's already working two jobs. My mom is working a job .... They're struggling. They're stressed."
At the University of Illinois, more than 200 professors, instructors and graduate faculty marched through campus carrying signs that read "Furlough Legislators" — a reference to recent furloughs and 4 percent pay cuts imposed on thousands of university employees.
In Olympia, Wash., a group of about 75 protesters arrived at the Capitol bearing a faux coffin emblazoned with the slogan "R.I.P. Education." They were ejected from the state Senate gallery after interrupting a debate with a protest song that followed the tune of "Amazing Grace."
At the University of Texas at Austin, about 100 students and staff rallied on campus to protest a 5.4 percent hike in tuition and fees approved by regents a day earlier. Protesters complained the quality of education was taking a backseat to the university's bottom line.
In Alabama, Broderick Thomas, a 23-year-old Auburn senior, attended an annual higher education rally in Montgomery and said he feels "it's the moral duty of the state to give back what they promised."
On the campus of California State University, Northridge, a group of protesters sat down in an intersection blocking traffic. Police said five students were cited for misdemeanors and released.
Students also conducted a sit-in at the University of California, Los Angeles and rallied outside the downtown federal building.
In Sacramento, hundreds of students, teachers, parents and school employees rallied at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to restore funding to public schools.
"My kids are seeing their PE, art and music teachers leave, and they're even taking away school buses," said Monika Monte, who has three children in the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District. "I'm worried what will happen to kids all over the state if this continues. When does it stop?"