Santiago, Chile

Two boys sit on the second floor balcony of their occupied public high school, José Victorino Lastarria in Santiago, Chile. They peer down through the railing, dangling a cup on a string two meters below to request donations from pedestrians. A few strides away, their classmates hold signs that advertise free hugs and kisses, while others monitor those entering the campus.

In a tiny conference room inside the building, 11 students from several area high schools gather around a table as dusk falls. A forgotten sheet of paper adorns the center of the table as a makeshift ashtray as the students patiently listen to each other. They discuss an upcoming citywide summit among high school student leaders, two girls give a report on accusations of sexual violence by police officers, and they all strategize how to reclaim their public schools from the heavy hand of their mayor.

In 2011, students occupied this same building for six months along with hundreds of other high schools and universities across the country. While the campus occupations and massive weekly marches rocketed education to the top of the public agenda, last year’s mobilization did not succeed in achieveing its goals of a free, quality and public education for all Chilean students. But that takes times. For now, officials have created 12 education-related projects, among them a massaged tax reform, which many student leaders criticize as being cosmetic fixes at best.

During a popular weekly television debate on Sunday night, education minister Harald Beyer emphasized the government’s concessions such as increasing education spending in just one year by 33%, and defended the Piñera administration’s points of no compromise.

“We will not go to completely free education, because it seems to us like a negative and regressive policy,” said Beyer. “We also don’t believe public education should be a hegemony. We believe parents should have the freedom to choose the establishments where they send their kids,” he said.

Moisés Paredes, 18, spokesperson for Arturo Alessandri Palma high school, criticized this attitude. “The political class, the government, the minister of education, the only thing they have done is respond with arrogance and indifference,” said Paredes, whose high school is at the forefront of the occupations.

“I believe the dialogue and work that is created with the government must be oriented to the demands of the student movement, and that is how we are going to get out the conflict we are in today,” said Paredes.

Since both high school and university campus occupations were rekindled mid-August in response to disappointment in the education reform proposals, the government has cracked down with a zero tolerance policy. Every evening, police officers confront occupied high schools with an eviction notice and arrest anyone who resists eviction.

These daily confrontations between special police forces and uniformed students have sometime been violent.  Among the injured was a 13-year-old girl who received a blow to the head by an iron police baton after a peaceful sit-in at a central plaza.

At José Victorino Lastarria, student vice president Nicolás Díaz explained that students agreed among themselves to cooperate with the officers. “For us it is an unnecessary wear on our strength [to resist], because the following day we come back to occupy, and they know it and we know it,” said Díaz.

While their demands have not significantly changed since last year, mobilized high schools are focusing their energy to petitioning the mayor and other officials for more community involvement in the schools. Currently, the municipality, headed by the mayor, has the final say regarding the type of students schools accept, how schools are run, and how students are punished. In the commune of Providencia where José Victorino Lastarria is located, the students from the smoky conference room are seeking their municipality’s approval to form a school board for each public high school that would incorporate professors, students, parents and the board of directors.

This local solution seeks to achieve something concrete in the wake of last year’s lofty demands. “When we say ‘We want free education,’ in reality that is really broad…instead, asking for a school board only requires the mayor to put his signature on a piece of paper,” said Díaz. “This is a first step in what we are seeking, which is free, public and quality education.”