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 dependence.

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 pathology.

"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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Editorial Comment: Not only is this segregation of Romani children into Special Schools done in the former Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries but also in places such as Germany and, I believe France and Spain. It is routine in Germany for Sinti (and Roma) children to be sent to the Sonderschule (Special School) near immediately after Einschulung (enrolment into school) at age six and the children barely ever stand a chance to get into mainstream schooling once they have been sent to such special schools and also stand no chance to get anywhere decent as regards to further education, should they wish so. It has been done as a matter of routine ever since the end of the Nazi era in Germany and is still being done. Often, it would appear, as soon as the school becomes aware of the ethnic background of the child, e.g. him or her being Romani they are shunted out of the ordinary elementary school, against parents' wishes, into the special schools and that is it.