11.22.12

In Italy, Angry Students Occupy Schools

More than 200 high schools and a growing number of universities are being occupied by their students in effort to protest against austerity.

On a crisp November morning, 16-year-old Matteo Cremoni sits on the cold cobblestones in Piazza del Popolo in central Rome, trying not to drop his Art History book while he takes notes on a pad that he balances on his knee. His teacher uses a megaphone to lecture his fellow 11th graders who have gathered for the open-air class, which is being held in the public square because students have taken over Tasso, the high school he attends.  When he finishes class, he will return to help his classmates occupy the school.  “We are part of a revolution in education in Italy,” he told The Daily Beast.  “We have to do this ourselves because no one else is standing up for our rights.”

Tasso is one of 25 public high schools across Rome currently occupied by angry students who are fed up with the degraded condition of their schools and the diminishing quality of their education. More than 200 high schools and a growing number of universities are under occupation across the whole of Italy. Many more institutions are expected to come under siege as the occupy school movement spreads, bolstered by weekly protests that often turn violent. Nov. 24 will mark the second major demonstration in a week as angry students take to the streets to voice their complaints. During demonstrations last week dozens of students were injured and many more were arrested across the country after sparring with law enforcement officials.  Many carried makeshift shields decorated as classic book covers from Dante to Shakespeare to underscore that their education—or lack thereof—is at the crux of their complaints.

At Darwin, a high school outside of the city center, more than half of the toilets are backed up and haven’t been flushed for weeks.

Italy spends just under 5 percent of its gross domestic product on education—the third lowest allotment in all of Europe. And yet Italy’s 2013 austerity budget will shave off €180 million from the country’s overall expenditure. Easy as it is to blame austerity measures, the problem is not entirely new. Education has been a primary target of budget cuts for the past five years, the effect of which has reduced some schools to near ruin. Nearly 60 percent of the public schools in Italy have some sort of structural damage, according Italian teachers' unions.

In the Cavour high school in central Rome, mice run through the halls, nibbling on open wiring and nesting in the lockers. Their tiny droppings litter the floors. Broken windows and cracked floor tiles are evidence of years of neglect due to dwindling maintenance budgets. Holes in the ceiling let in the rain, which has collected in stagnant pools in the corners of classrooms.

At Darwin, a high school outside of the city center, more than half of the toilets are backed up and haven’t been flushed for weeks. There is no hot water, and most of the radiators are broken. Not that it matters since the school can’t afford to run the heat for more than two hours a day. Teachers employ space heaters and many students wear gloves to class. Flickering light bulbs—where there are light bulbs—cast a depressing glow over the cracked plaster walls. Whole floors have been cordoned off to save electricity.

“This is not exactly a positive learning environment, is it?” asks Giovanna, a student who doesn’t want to give her last name since she is one of the ringleaders occupying the school, pointing to a broken window in the school’s art room. “It’s hard to concentrate when the place feels like a third-world slum.”

In many of the schools in Rome, the once-manicured grounds are overgrown with weeds.  Buildings haven’t been painted in years. Throughout the country, students bring their own toilet paper to school and teachers often supply their own copier paper and chalk because supplies are nonexistent. Forget about Internet connectivity and smart boards—many public schools don’t even have functioning fax machines. Each school may have its own set of problems, but one thing unites them: the growing number of signs hanging from the windows that announce that the school is “occupato” or occupied.

Hard as it may be to believe, things are at least as bad on the academic level. In some schools, class schedules have been reduced to just three days a week on rotation so teachers can be used for more than one class. Elective classes, like foreign languages, are scarce because of staffing cuts, or taught by people who barely speak the foreign languages themselves. In many cases, art and music programs—once staples in the Italian education system—are taught without supplies or musical instruments. Hundreds of administrators have been laid off over the last two years, meaning that as many as a dozen schools share the same supervisors, who are often too busy managing what little funds there are to make the rounds, leaving the school administration duties to the frazzled teachers.

In some schools, teachers are cooperating with the students by covertly aiding in the occupations, joining the protests or holding classes in public squares and sending homework via email so the students can keep up with the curriculum while their schools are sequestered. There is even a helpful website called studenti.it that offers an instruction manual explaining how to take over a school, outlining the obvious caveats like how it’s against the law and they might be arrested, though so far, police have quietly turned a blind eye to most school occupations, except when safety is an issue or where student gangs have infiltrated the occupiers. “At the end of the day, after the school staff leave, the students remain and generally lock the gate with chains,” advises the site. “In theory, if the police don’t show up, you can sleep at the school.”

But even if the Italian government does start listening to the angry students and halts the projected budget cuts, it will take more than getting the schools cleaned up and running again to secure a promising future for the young people at the heart of the debate. Once the students do graduate, there is little hope for finding a job, even if they do go on to attend university. Youth unemployment in Italy now hovers around 35 percent, and Italy ranks penultimate out of 34 nations polled about job prospects for new graduates, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization that works closely with the United Nations.

Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti agrees that Italian students are paying a high price for years of bad choices, but there is little that can be done given the budget constraints. “Italian students are encountering many hardships and difficulties,” he said this week at the prestigious Bocconi University, where he taught economics before taking the job as prime minister. “What we are trying to do is to avoid the same mistakes in today’s economic and social policies that have accumulated over decades in the past and have led us to this serious and difficult problem to solve today.”

For the students who just want to get back to class and start learning again, that’s one lesson they are not willing to accept.