Some 600,000 private and public high school students took to the streets and went on strike throughout Chile on May 29, demanding improvements in their education. At least 500,000 youth marched all over the country the next day.

Protests continued to rock the country on May 31 and June 1. At least 20 people were injured and 1,000 were arrested over a period of three days. Organizers said that a million people joined the growing struggle on June 5, becoming the largest student demonstration in Chile since 1972.

Special riot squads from the militarized Carabineros police met protesters with violent repression, provoking fierce clashes. Nearly 300 people were detained and 20 others injured. Critics of the police said brutal methods inherited from the 1973-1990 military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet were evident in their handling the protesters.

“Our movement is peaceful,” said Maria Jesus Sanhueza, a student leader, to reporters.

“Our demands from the start have been for sweeping changes to the education system,” she said.

The student movement is being called the “Penguin Revolution,” because of the uniforms students wear. It was organized by the national Coordinating Assembly of High School Students that began in mid-May. University students, professors and the National School and Tourism Transport Guild Federation have joined the students in solidarity, calling for nationwide support for the strike.

The students, aged 14-18, are demanding the hiring of more teachers, the waiver of university entrance examination fees, and the provision of free student bus passes. They also want a complete overhaul of the underfunded public school system to reduce the disparities between public and private schools. The students also want reforms made to the Constitutional Organic Law on Education, which dates from the Pinochet dictatorship.

Socialist President Michelle Bachelet has proposed a bill to amend Chile’s constitution, saying she wants to “confirm the right of all citizens to a quality education.” The bill includes the creation of Presidential Advisory Council, with student participation, whose tasks would include developing new teaching practices. She has also agreed to free student bus passes and a waiver of exam fees for the poorest students.

“The students have made their demands felt, which I have described as just and legitimate,” she said, “and they did it peacefully.”

At the same time, Bachelet sharply criticized the violent behavior of the government’s riot squads, calling it “unnecessary.” She ordered the removal of Colonel Osvaldo Jara from his post as head of the police Special Forces due to the “unacceptable excesses” of its officers. An investigation was also announced into the use of repression against journalists who were beaten during the protests.

The Communist Party of Chile, which is in a coalition with Bachelet, condemned police repression of the students’ legitimate protests.