REPORTING FROM MADRID -- Tens of thousands of students marched out of their schools across Spain on Wednesday, protesting education cuts that have led to teacher layoffs, overcrowded campuses and unheated classrooms.
In the northern city of Barcelona, demonstrators set fires and smashed bank windows. No injuries were reported.
It was the first major violence in what have otherwise been mostly peaceful protests across Spain for months against austerity measures that compound already existing anger over unemployment.
But it could be an omen of what's to come: Spaniards are only beginning to feel the effects of a $20-billion package of spending cuts and tax hikes passed this year by the newly installed conservative government. Further spending cuts may follow because Madrid is still flouting rules limiting budget deficits for members of the 17-nation Eurozone.
The violence in Barcelona included students setting trash cans ablaze. In one instance, fire spread to a nearby car, which then shot flames 20 feet into the air and blocked traffic for hours. Hooded and masked protesters threw chairs through the front windows of a local bank. Others burned an effigy of a businessman in a suit in front of Barcelona's stock exchange. A number of demonstrators were arrested, police said.
Rallies were also held in Madrid, Valencia and other cities.
Wednesday's marches in Spain coincided with union-organized protests in Paris, Athens, Lisbon and Brussels on the eve of a European Union summit at which 25 nations are expected to sign a pact on fiscal discipline.
The Spanish rallies were held in solidarity with high school students in the eastern city of Valencia who clashed with police while protesting regional education cuts last week. Valencia is Spain's most deeply indebted region, and local budget cuts, coupled with municipal debts, have led to water and power outages at some schools.
“We're passing the whole winter using blankets in the classrooms," Lara Renar, 16, said in an interview in Valencia on Tuesday. "My reaction was to join these protests and make some noise, or otherwise just accept that the future is very bad.”
After more than two dozen students were arrested in Valencia on Feb. 20, cellphone videos emerged showing some students being beaten by police. Solidarity marches erupted in the days that followed, with locals calling for the resignations of regional police commanders.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy interrupted talks in London last week to urge calm in Valencia.
“It’s time for calm and responsibility," Rajoy told reporters Feb. 21. "We shouldn't project an image abroad that doesn’t reflect our country.”
-- Lauren Frayer
Photo: A young woman runs for cover during a clash between riot police and students protesting education cuts in Barcelona, Spain. Credit: David Ramos / Getty Images