Roma in Czech Republic often shunted into special schools

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Apr 27 13:45:36 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,   April 27, 2005

Often Shunted Into Special Schools, Gypsies Fight Back

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic - Iveta Bihariova recalls how she nervously
watched her 9-year-old son, Ivan, while a psychiatrist in a white lab coat
threw colored candies on the floor. "I rushed to pick up the candy because
I didn't know that it was a test,"  said Mrs. Bihariova, taking a break
from picking up garbage strewn across a Roma, or Gypsy, housing project in
the Czech city of Ostrava, close to the Polish border.

"After that, the psychiatrist told me that since Ivan didn't pick up the
candy, he was too slow and should go to a special school." Czech Republic
officials estimate that up to 75 percent of the Roma children in the
country are like Ivan - attending schools intended for the mentally
disabled and receiving what human rights groups contend is a substandard
education that can lead to a lifetime of unemployment, dependence on
welfare and even crime. Now, advocates for Roma rights have begun legal
action to change the situation.

The country's 120 "special" schools, the term traditionally used to
describe the combined elementary and middle schools for the mentally
disabled in the Czech Republic, were created by the Communist government
in the 1960's. Their graduates are largely ineligible to apply to college
or to obtain a job beyond the most basic manual labor. According to the
State Department's annual human rights report issued in March, 90 percent
of the children in Czech special schools are Roma.  Critics of the
government's education policy charge that this is the result of bias, and
lawyers representing Roma children have filed the first systematic legal
challenge against school discrimination in Europe.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is considering
whether to hear the case of 18 teenagers from Ostrava who argue that their
placement in special schools in the late 1990's violated their right to
protection against discrimination granted under Czech and European law.
Their lawyer, James A. Goldston, senior counsel for the European Roma
Rights Center in Budapest, compared the Ostrava case to Brown v. Board of
Education, the landmark 1954 United States Supreme Court decision that
moved a nation toward desegregation.

"What you have in the Czech Republic, and to some extent Eastern Europe,
is de facto segregation. The majority of Roma children in the Czech
Republic get a second-class education and never get past the eighth grade,
by the Czech government's own admission," Mr. Goldston said. Jiri Pilar,
director of the Department of Special Needs Education for the Czech
Republic, denies any systematic discrimination against Roma and, instead,
blames parents for their children's poor educational results.

"We simply have not been successful in getting Roma parents to take
sufficient interest in their children's education," he said. "I worked in
a diagnostic institute for 15 years, and even in the case where a Roma
child could potentially make it in a normal school, the parents simply
didn't care enough. They didn't push." A panel of judges at the Strasbourg
court held preliminary hearings in March. A court decision on whether to
accept the case is due within a few weeks. If the Ostrava plaintiffs win,
experts say, the case could have consequences across Europe, particularly
in countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia.

"As Europe continues to grow increasingly diverse, this case is of great
significance for all minorities because it makes clear that racial
discrimination has no place in Europe," said Rachel Denber, director of
the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

The Roma, dark in complexion, are thought to have migrated to Europe from
India centuries ago. Their nomadic life set them apart from other groups,
and their history has been one of poverty and persecution. They are the
poorest and largest minority group in Europe, with large numbers
concentrated in former Communist countries.

Under communism, they received generous state subsidies; today, both Roma
and government representatives say that assistance has led to a cycle of

Making up about 2.5 percent of the Czech population, the country's 300,000
Roma have a 70 percent unemployment rate. They also have significantly
higher crime rates than the non-Roma population, Roma leaders concede. Few
Roma finish high school.

"We have to convince the Roma that to live like regular decent people, if
I can put it like that, is a lot better for them than to live from hand to
mouth on the edge of society just because they don't want to go to school
and work," Mr. Pilar said.

Kumar Vishwanathan, an Ostrava activist and a teacher from India credited
with first exposing the inequity in Roma education, argued that the
cultural bias of Czech officials relegates Roma children to the special
schools, a path that continues the cycle of dependency and social

"First, the tests that evaluate mental ability and determine what school
these kids were sent to were always in Czech," he said. "Roma kids speak a
Roma dialect or ghetto Czech, so they were doomed to fail."

But Mr. Vishwanathan acknowledged that Roma parents, who must approve
their children's placement, often want the youngsters to be in special
schools because they are more comfortable there.

Ms. Bihariova, mother of Ivan, now 14, said he is faring well in special
school. "It's easier for him; the teachers are nicer to Roma there," she
said. Jan Ziga, a Roma teenager who is also from Ostrava, said he sought a
transfer to a special school "because the teachers in the normal school
called Roma nasty names."

The government has taken several steps to improve Roma education.

Tests were standardized in 1998, based on a British model that Mr. Pilar
said removed cultural bias. Children attending special schools were given
the chance to take an extra year of coursework and apply to regular high
schools, although only a tiny percentage have done so.

The state is also continuing to increase the number of Roma teaching
assistants, who have proven successful in bridging the gap between Roma
students and teachers in regular classrooms. A new education law that went
into effect in January requires standard schools to accommodate children
with behavioral or learning problems. Officials say they hope this change
will mean more Roma children will attend regular schools.

The effort may come too late for Katrin Dzurkova, one of the 18 teenagers
in the Ostrava lawsuit.

Now 13, she was 6 when she was told that she belonged in a special school,
although she has not given up hope.

After hesitating and then fighting embarrassment, she explained in an
almost inaudible voice why she is going to court.

"I want a better education; I want a job. I want to be normal," she said.

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