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In protest, deaf students take over college building

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Students at Gallaudet University remained barricaded inside one of the main campus buildings Friday, protesting the school's presidential selection and what students call a pattern of prejudice at the largely deaf institution.

Students said campus police on Friday morning forced their way into the Hall Memorial Building, shoving and elbowing students and pepper spraying some.

The school denied use of pepper spray and said authorities needed to rush in because of a bomb threat, though there turned out to be no bomb.

Ryan Commerson, a student and leader of the protests, said the campus police apparently did not know sign language and could not communicate their concerns to students as they pushed their way in.

A lack of knowledge of sign language by those charged with protecting the students has historically caused troubles at the university not far from the U.S. Capitol, but the school has previously said it took steps to address that.

Commerson said one student went to doctors on campus Friday after being sprayed because he had a burning sensation on his neck.

But Gallaudet University spokeswoman Mercy Coogan told CNN she checked with the head of security and was told that no pepper spray or Mace had been used and that no one was hurt.

University officials said the students were illegally occupying the building, and that authorities had the right to enter.

Coogan did not say how the bomb threat came in. Campus police called D.C. Metro police to the school, she said, but only campus police entered the building, and D.C. police soon left.

After the incident, the protests were calm. More than 200 people were inside the building taking part in the protests -- including some faculty.

Dispute over new president

The dispute centers around the choice in May of Jane K. Fernandes to take over as president in 2007. She is currently the school's provost, and would succeed president I. King Jordan. He became the school's first deaf president in 1988.

Fernandes, born deaf, grew up "mainstreamed" -- meaning she went to schools with hearing children -- and did not learn sign language until she was in her 20s. Students complain she is still not fluent. When her selection was announced in May, students launched fierce protests, calling it a sign of "audism" -- a term used to describe discrimination or stereotypes against deaf or hard of hearing people.

Some also complained of racism, saying a strong black candidate was not among the three finalists.

The school has rejected claims of bias.

In a letter to students in August, in advance of the new academic year, Fernandes said she understood "the depth of the passions that were stirred among those who both supported and opposed the Board's decision to appoint me." She added, "We must work hard to achieve our goal of becoming an inclusive deaf university where everyone is included, valued, and respected."

But students argue that the school is giving no more than lip service to those ideals.

"Last night, in response to Board of Trustees' decision to not respond to the protesters, the students decided to take over one of the main school buildings and lock it down until we are able to get them to open their eyes and see that there are serious problems on campus that need to be addressed," student Leah Katz-Hernandez wrote in a message from inside the Hall Memorial Building, where many classes take place.

She wrote that at 8 a.m. Friday campus police ran in and "started pushing and hitting students and threatening to spray mace. Some people got assaulted. We did nothing. They just all of sudden stormed us while we were sleeping and few people were on guard." She said several students were hurt.

A supporter of the protests sent out Katz-Hernandez's dispatch to media outlets.

University officials have looked for ways to calm the anger among many students, but protesters said they will keep up their efforts until a new search for a school president begins.

Coogan said the complaints about Fernandes arose out of the question of whether she was "deaf enough." Coogan said Fernandes has laid out a plan to address instances of audism and racism when they arise at the school. Those cases have been dealt with on an individual basis, but the school now wants to follow a more systematic approach, Coogan said.

Two students and one alumnus were on the selection committee for a new president, Coogan said.

Gallaudet describes itself as "the world leader in liberal education and career development for deaf and hard of hearing undergraduate students."

Coogan said the university is committed to "visual communications," and that those who work for the school are expected to know some level of sign language."

CNN Producer Katie Ross contributed to this report.

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