In early May, Ericka Villalobos chained herself to the gate of an elementary school in a western San José suburb to protest against the school’s leadership. She complained that the school’s principal was ignoring requests from parents and wasn’t treating the community with respect.
For the three days that Villalobos blocked the entrance to the Escuela Brasil de Santa Ana, classes were cancelled and some children, who depend on the school for meals, went without food.
But Villalobos’ tactics worked. By the end of the week, the Public Education Ministry removed the school’s principal and said she wouldn’t return until the situation was investigated.
“I think things will be better now that she is gone,” said Zorayda Corrales, a mother who took part in the protest and who collected the community’s written complaints. “It was terrible what we were experiencing here.”
Forcing the doors of an educational center to close as a means of protest is not unusual in Costa Rica.
Last week, parents in the community of Zalama de Osa, in the southwest corner of the country, refused to send their children to school, claiming students were being promoted from grade to grade without learning anything. In Puntarenas in April, parents brought locks and chains to two elementary schools and refused to allow the schools to open until the directors were replaced.
“Unfortunately, the formal mechanisms that government institutions have for holding consultations or handling requests aren’t satisfactory or aren’t responding to people’s needs,” said Guillermo Acuña, a sociologist at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO). “People feel they are being ignored, so they are looking for another way (to be heard) – in the streets, through protest.”
Rafael Velasco, former board president of Escuela Brasil de Santa Ana, feels closing an elementary school is a backwards means of resolving conflicts.
“They are teaching children that this is how you do things in this country,” he said. “The kids are learning that if you want something done, close the school, throw rocks and ignore the process,” he said. “For me, that’s the most serious part.”
Velasco, who served on the board for seven years, stepped down last week to show his disagreement with the Education Ministry’s response.
“They removed the director without due process, without investigation and without offering her an opportunity to defend herself,” he said. “She left without knowing what they were accusing her of. With the illegality and injustice of the situation, I can’t continue to be there. I can not stay there when children learn that things are resolved through violence and by breaking the law.”
According to Velasco, the principal transformed the school from an at-risk, marginal educational center into a much more modern one. Yes, Velasco said, she was hard-line and might have made a few unpopular decisions, but her aim was always to improve learning.
Velasco said that one reason for the protest was a recent move by the school’s administration to cancel a mother’s day party, arguing that the funds would be better used for the children than to entertain parents.
The four mothers responsible for the demonstration said they felt excluded from these decisions and wanted a voice in electing board members. They said they were upset with the manner in which the school was asking for contributions, and with how other celebrations were being scaled back. They also complained about how access to the school was being restricted during off hours.
Thumbing through a thick folder of complaints, Corrales, a mother of two, accused the principal of showing up to school drunk and of stealing school funds. She said, “We know that closing the school is a crime against the kids, but it’s more of a crime to allow our kids to go to an institution where the person in charge of our kids is inebriated.”
Another parent, who asked her name not be used for fear of retaliation, said the women bullied the community into filing complaints against the principal.
“I never had a problem here,” she said. “For all of the contributions I made, I got a receipt that explained how the money was spent.” She also said there wasn’t an issue of drugs being distributed, as there was in other schools her daughter has attended.
In a letter to the Education Ministry, members of the school’s board denounced the protestors.
“There are many other ways to request, ask for, complain and demand,” they wrote. “We, board members, as citizens respectful of the law, condemn their acts against competent authorities … This board has always been open to listen to and receive people as they request.”
However, the most common reason for school closures, said sociologist José Carlos Chinchilla of the NationalUniversity, is because parents feel there is no other way to have their voices heard.
“The parents don’t do this with the end goal of closing the school, but they’ve learned that the way to get authorities to listen is to take this type of action,” he said.
“The existing system is too bureaucratic and therefore parents’ concerns don’t make it to the attention of the people who can make decisions.”
According to Chinchilla, the best way to avoid school closures resulting from protests is to help parents feel that they are being listened to.
“We need to make the system more fluid in order to respond to the requests of the parents,” he said. “Not just in education, but in other realms of government.”