Roma Children Kept Separate, and Unequal

International Herald Tribune

Roma students in the Czech Republic are still routinely put at a disadvantage because of their placement in either segregated schools or school for children with learning disabilities, despite criticism from rights groups and a 2007 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that called the situation discriminatory.

A disproportionate number of Roma are placed in what are called “practical schools,” meaning institutions that use a simplified curriculum for children who have mild mental disabilities or who need remedial training. In a parallel problem, others are segregated into Roma-only schools that keep them isolated from the mainstream education system.

In 2010, about one-third of Roma students in the Czech Republic were in practical schools, according to the Czech Schools Inspectorate. In 2012, that number dropped to 26 percent, though Roma children were still overrepresented, given that the Roma make up less than 3 percent of the population.

“For many people here, it took time to realize the ruling wasn’t just about the plaintiffs, but about the system,” said Jiri Nantl, the country’s deputy minister for education, youth and sports, referring to the 2007 case.

The Czech school system has been repeatedly pushed to address the problem. Last year, the European Council of Ministers underlined the importance of rectifying the situation highlighted by the 2007 judgment, while the country’s Public Defender of Rights office concluded that the practice amounted to segregation.

Mr. Nantl said that changes were planned for this school year, starting in September. These include increased classroom support, as well as a new assessment system that would follow students throughout their education. In the past, students sent to practical schools were often not re-evaluated to see whether they would succeed in mainstream schools, leaving many stuck in the system as they progressed.

Roma students also do not always have the early support that other children do, a result of poverty and low education levels among many parents.

“Roma children usually start their educational careers in mainstream schools, but after a few months they are distinguished as ‘problematic,”’ said Petra Klingerova, education programs manager for Programy Socialni Intergrace, a nonprofit group that works with disadvantaged children.

“Teachers can send the child for an examination in a special assessment center where the child is examined and often labeled mentally retarded. With this diagnosis, the child is moved to a practical school,” she explained. “Roma children are often placed in practical schools because they need individual teacher support. Czech schools are not able to offer it, so teachers prefer to have special-needs children out of their classroom.”

“Local municipalities don’t want to change the status quo, and the majority of Czechs don’t want their children to go to school with Roma,” she said. “Roma are satisfied because the schools aren’t so difficult. Teachers are satisfied because if they have a ‘problem’ child, he or she can go somewhere else. Practical school teachers are satisfied because they have well-paid jobs.”

A report last year by Amnesty International and the European Roma Rights Center noted the problems that come from Roma’s being placed both in practical schools and in Roma-only schools, which are technically mainstream schools, but which tend to use a simplified curriculum.

“No education means no job and being supported by the state,” said Martina Parizkova, a media officer for Amnesty International. “We are trying to explain that this problem has consequences for society in general.”

She also cited the problem of Czech parents’ asking that their children be removed from classes with Roma. “To change people’s minds and attitudes will be very difficult,” Ms. Parizkova said.