Mexico’s Money Woes Threaten Schools’ Safety


They lock the students in at PS 311 these days. But the hefty padlock and barbed wire at this fenced junior high in the capital’s poor Ixtapalapa district are not meant to enforce discipline. The measures are aimed at protecting frightened students, teachers and school administrators--all victims of this nation’s economic crisis.

In the days since a gang of armed men held up the school’s director and robbed a parent-teacher fund of more than $1,500 in hard-won donations a few days before classes started late last month, security throughout Mexico’s largest school district has been tight.

Still, teachers and students can’t erase the memory of being robbed and terrorized at gunpoint. “All of us are afraid now,” said PS 311 Director Esperanza Huerta Ramirez. “But what can you do when 10 armed youths show up? Better to save yourself and open the gate.”


For Efrain de Gyves, director of the primary and secondary schools that serve 400,000 students in Ixtapalapa, the soaring crime and insecurity in the schools reflect the depth of desperation of Mexico itself. The bad economic times are, he said, tearing at one of the nation’s most sacred institutions: its public schools.

“People here have a lot of respect for teachers. When no one else can come and go safely in these communities, teachers can,” De Gyves said. “So, when teachers are being robbed, you know it’s a very grave problem.”

Besides fretting about crime, teachers and administrators say the nation’s deep recession has caused other harmful effects in the schools.

Teachers struggling to survive prices that have soared since December’s sharp currency devaluation--on wages that have been frozen at an average $300 a month--are working second and third jobs just to buy food. At some schools, teachers have set up vending stands to augment their income between classes.

But all the moonlighting reduces educators’ time with students. It affects teacher attitudes and cuts into some afternoon classes.

The situation also has grown so dire for some that federal officials have announced they are cracking down on teachers who steal and sell school property.


Students are struggling too. Those who come from poorer families suddenly find they can’t afford books, pens, paper and notebooks; at PS 311, for example, biology is no longer taught from a $5 text because too few families can pay for it. In addition, the government has been forced to relax rules requiring student uniforms because so few youngsters can afford them.

So squeezed are lower-middle-class Mexicans--those hit worst by the crisis that has cut most Mexicans’ spending power in half--that this fall more than 62,000 students have been forced to transfer from private to public schools, official figures show.

That, of course, has added to the burdens of the cash-strapped federal education department responsible for educating more than 19.3 million elementary and junior high students nationwide.

And an increasing number of youngsters, educators say, are suffering in another way: They’re coming to class hungry because their parents can barely afford more than one meal a day.

Under pressure from teachers and parents, the government has promised to restart a free breakfast program this fall; a similar effort was abandoned years ago when millions of poor Mexicans seemed to have escaped into the middle class and no longer needed it.

But all of these problems, and others, are compounded by student and teacher fears that the government no longer can keep them safe--before, during and after class. Those fears are especially pronounced in neighborhoods like Ixtapalapa, where district Director De Gyves said even the police are afraid to patrol after 5 p.m.


Soon after the economic crisis began, he said, half a dozen federal agencies organized seminars to try to improve school security. In most districts, the sessions lasted from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. But in Ixtapalapa, which covers one-fifth of Mexico City’s public school population, police insisted they end at 5 p.m. “for security reasons,” De Gyves said.

In his recent State of the Nation speech, President Ernesto Zedillo acknowledged that Mexican “society is deeply and justifiably offended” by skyrocketing crime and police indifference. “In many places,” he said, “the daily threat to persons, their families and their assets is a cause for indignation.”

But Zedillo, who was education secretary before he became president, insisted that “care has been taken to prevent the difficult economic situation from halting the country’s educational progress.” Specifically, he cited the recent distribution, “with unprecedented punctuality,” of 114 million free elementary school textbooks.

He did not, of course, mention that the nation’s junior high students must still buy their books--at prices few lower-middle-class and poor families can afford. Zedillo conceded that restoring law and order to Mexico’s streets and schools “cannot be completed overnight,” especially amid a recession that most analysts say will last well into next year.

That, at least, is evident in the Ixtapalapa district’s gang neighborhoods, where those who can afford cars lock them on the streets in improvised steel cages. It was in these neighborhoods that at least two teachers, shortly after school began, faced daylight carjackings at gunpoint. Other teachers say armed gangs have threatened them. Here, all elementary and junior high schools now are padlocked from the inside, day and night.

Although PS 311 is admittedly an extreme case when it comes to crime, it is emblematic of the host of problems--worsened by the rotten economy--that plague Mexican public schools.


Director Huerta said that the school, with its 338 mostly poor students, shouldn’t even exist.

It is little more than a dozen prefabricated tin classrooms parked around a cracked asphalt basketball court. It opened as a “provisional” facility three years ago and was to be in use for only a few months.

But hundreds of squatters--part of a human wave that each year migrates by the tens of thousands from the countryside to the capital for work--invaded and occupied the school’s designated permanent site. Federal officials fought for almost two years to oust them.

Finally, though, construction began, and the school is scheduled to move into new facilities this month--provided the government has the money to finish them. In the meantime, PS 311 is so cramped that the average class size is 40 students.

And because PS 311 is a “temporary” building, it--unlike other schools in this district, which are surrounded by thick steel walls and bars--is more vulnerable to crime. “We asked the police to assign a patrol to the school,” Huerta said.

She laughed cynically. The police refused, she said. They further rejected a plea to at least protect students and staff by stationing a patrol car at the gate during the hour when classes let out for the day. For now, all PS 311 has is three women and two men who work unarmed and alone in shifts, guarding the entrance.


Huerta noted that the robbers last month did more than just terrorize teachers, students and parents who were gathered for a parent-teacher meeting. The school fund that the gang stole in just a few moments was earmarked for the costs of new lights and other basics that the government can’t pay for. The money, 10,344 pesos--or about $1,650--had been collected from the youngsters’ parents, who are among this city’s most needy.

“These are very poor people who have to make great sacrifices to send their children to school,” Huerta said. “The school has a lot of needs, and now we’re left with nothing.”