Vol. 29, No.2
Anger at the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in the Mexican state of Guerrero has ignited months of mass protest across Mexico. The students, missing since Sept. 26, were part of a larger group raising funds to travel to Mexico City for a national march. The group was attacked by the local police. Six people were killed and the 43 students have not been seen since.
Ayotzinapa is an escuela normal, a type of school established in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution to train teachers from indigenous areas of Mexico. The escuelas normales, focused on developing bilingual teachers in Spanish and Indigenous languages, have a long history of fighting for social justice and rooting education in respect for traditional values and ways of life. Students at Ayotzinapa were protesting government-imposed education reforms, which they argued would make education unaffordable for many and destroy the escuelas normales, which are free for poor rural and Indigenous students. “This particular attack reflects decades of criminalization of these schools,” Tanalís Padilla, associate professor of Latin American history at Dartmouth College, told Democracy Now!.
Teachers, students, and community members across Mexico see the disappearance of the 43 students as part of the government’s attack on progressive educators. They also see it in the context of the escalating violence tied to the U.S.-fueled drug war and the close ties between the government and drug cartels.
The United States has spent about $3 billion on the “war on drugs” in Mexico since 2006. In that time period, more than 85,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence; thousands more have been tortured, thousands have disappeared. There is increasing evidence of the cooperation, collusion, and overlap among political leaders, police, and drug gangs. According to Padilla: “In the current Mexican government, it is really hard to tell where the state begins and where drug cartels end.”
Months of almost constant demonstrations throughout the country led up to major protests on Nov. 20, Revolution Day in Mexico. The largest marches were in Monterrey and Mexico City, where officials were forced to cancel the traditional parade. Relatives, fellow students, and supporters traveled across Mexico in caravans before meeting up with the Mexico City demonstration. That same day, hundreds of schools across the country participated in a national strike. Solidarity protests were held across Europe and in more than 40 U.S. cities.
The protesters are calling for the return of the missing students—“They were taken alive, we want them returned alive!” they shouted—and for the resignation of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who they see as implicated in these disappearances and the growing number of deaths attributable to state-sponsored violence.
Last year, student editors of the Playwickian, the student newspaper at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, resolved not to print the full name of the school’s athletic mascot—the “Redskins”—because they regarded it as a racial slur. When they received a letter to the editor that repeatedly used the word, they decided to print it as “R—.” Told by the administration they had to print the entire word, they substituted a note from the editors instead, explaining what happened and concluding: “This white space represents our resolve to maintain our rights as editors and our determination to eliminate discrimination.”
In retaliation, the school principal, Rob McGee, and the school board introduced district policies that would force the student newspaper to use the entire word. McGee also suspended the journalism advisor, Tara Huber, for two days without pay and pulled $1,200 out of the newspaper’s student activity fund. Ironically, last spring Huber was named “journalism teacher of the year” by the Pennsylvania School Press Association.
“It is disgraceful and an embarrassment that a school district in 2014 would punish students and a teacher for NOT using a racial slur in its student newspaper, not to mention the total disregard for the First Amendment,” said Dana Neuts, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, which renounced the actions.
Tapping into public school students’ smartphones and tracking their whereabouts has become a booming business. Texas is a leading state in this new education business trend. Dallas-based AIM Truancy Solutions uses mobile phones to “mentor” 4,000 truant Texas public school students. The growth of cellphone usage, “even within impoverished communities,” has made these devices the hardware of choice for AIM’s truancy prevention business, explained Brian Dooley, AIM’s operations director.
California has also seen growth in truancy-related policy and businesses. School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A) is a private firm based in El Dorado Hills, about 22 miles east of Sacramento. The company’s Attention 2 Attendance software program covers 1,400 schools and 1 million pupils, according to its website.
“SI&A serves an estimated 75 percent of California’s students with one or more products annually,” notes the Association of California School Administrators, which counts SI&A among its corporate partners. In California, if a child misses too much school, he or she can be forced to wear a GPS tracking device to ensure attendance compliance.
Although all educators want children in school so they can learn, there’s a slippery slope when law enforcement gets involved. Deborah Fowler heads the legal branch of Texas Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit. She says that in the early 1990s, Texas lawmakers made youth truancy a Class C misdemeanor for adjudication in adult courts. A misdemeanor record negatively impacts truant youth in their adult life prospects. Fowler also worries that law enforcement referrals criminalize young people, pushing them into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Hadar Aviram, Harry and Lillian Hastings Research Chair at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, concurs with Fowler’s assessment: “One concern with focusing on truancy is that, while it might be a preventative measure, it also points fingers and criminalizes people at a fairly early stage of their lives. It also raises ethical questions of parental responsibility, such as with ‘truancy courts’ that charge the parents with their children’s absenteeism.”
Absenteeism often costs school districts money, so there is a pull for ethical questions to take a back seat to fiscal imperatives. In both California and Texas, local school districts receive a per-pupil allotment of tax dollars based on students’ daily presence in classrooms, calculated as the Average Daily Attendance.
So, as school budgets continue to be cut, we have a perfect storm: The avalanche of data from standardized tests has a numbing effect on our sensitivity to data collection, technology companies tout the possibilities of using things like student smartphones as tracking devices, public officials lack a strong commitment to protecting student privacy, and schools and districts have a profit motive for tracking students more closely.
Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, blames “woefully out of date” federal regulations and a lack of school employee technology training as two main culprits in the rise of unregulated data mining and student monitoring companies. He cites “the general lack of a student privacy infrastructure” as one of the greatest concerns in this brave new world.
Adapted from “School Districts Using GPS, Ankle Bracelets, & Smartphone Tracking on Truant Kids,” by Michelle Matisons and Seth Sandronsky, mintpressnews.com. Oct. 7, 2014.