Breaking the Law: Stories of Roma Discrimination in Czech Schools

Barbora Černušáková - @BCernusakova
2 Junio 2015

Over a year ago, a group of colleagues from Amnesty International and I started field research into discrimination of Romani children in Czech primary schools. We aimed to get an in-depth understanding of the daily reality beyond the official statistics (in Czech) which persistently show that over a third of pupils in schools and classes for children with mild mental disabilities are Roma. In addition, we also wanted to examine the situation of Roma in mainstream schools. There was survey data available indicating that about a third of Roma attend ethnically segregated mainstream schools. There was also anecdotal evidence about various forms of differential treatment, including racial bullying, of those Romani children who manage to get enrolled in mixed schools.

Our take on the issue was clear. Ethnic discrimination, including segregation, in education violates Czech legislation, EU law and international human rights standards to which the Czech government is bound. It renders a whole group of the population – the Roma – to separate and frequently lower quality schooling with far-reaching consequences for their future options in life. And not only theirs: it affects also the lives of future generations of Roma in the country. The experience of parents educated in segregated and inferior settings leading to lower educational attainment is likely to be repeated by their children. What we then see is a persistent gap between Roma and non-Roma educational status. According to the data published in 2014 by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, only 21% of Roma finish secondary school. This is a stunning difference compared to the 84% of non-Roma. Discrimination of Roma in education, also has consequences for Czech society as whole. Segregated schooling and low educational attainment doesn’t equip young people with the best chances to find gainful employment or in some cases any employment for that matter – it continues to push them to the margins of society.

After our research was finished and the report with the findings confirming the concerns above was made public, I was invited by Czech television to defend Amnesty International’s position. “Are we really that bad?” the presenter wanted to know. The answer to his question can be found in the mosaic of individual stories of the children and their parents whom we met during our research. Together they draw a picture of frustration, broken dreams and humiliation. A picture that should have been erased years ago but wasn’t because the government hasn’t and still isn’t taking the problem seriously.

Psychological testing instead of language support

We visited Andrej’s house twice. The first time we were shown trophies from football tournaments and his school certificates. Andrej was out for training. His grandmother, with whom he had moved to the Czech Republic from Slovakia, explained that he was failing Czech language class. Instead of providing him with language support, the school sent him for a psychological assessment. During our second visit, Andrej told us about the tests. “They showed me pictures that I had to put together. It felt as if they [thought] I was an idiot. It was so simple.”

A week after the assessment he had received a letter which recommended his transfer to the practical school. “I wanted to go there as all my friends go there [too],” he recalls. One thing that he didn’t know about the school was that it was designed for pupils with mental disabilities. His grandmother who is his legal guardian opposed the transfer but she felt she was pressured into agreeing. “They told me that it was necessary as he would continue failing [in the mainstream school].”

When we met the director of the practical school, she admitted that the purpose of her school is to prepare pupils for further vocational training and to make sure “they have a healthy self-esteem”. However, Andrej’s self-esteem doesn’t need this type of treatment. He is pretty clear about what he wanted and that he is unlikely to achieve it now. “If I was at a mainstream school, I would have liked to go to a high school and then to the university. But [at the practical school] they told me it’s impossible to get to a school offering the maturita [the required qualifications for university entrance].”

Turning their lives into hell

Milena is a retired Roma teaching assistant and lives in a Roma neighbourhood in the city of Brno. Her granddaughter attends a Roma-only mainstream school. In Milena’s experience, the attitude of many schools in Brno towards Roma is marked by prejudice. “I worked 15 years in schools. The [non-Roma] won’t have Roma among them. If somebody dares to place their child where [non-Roma] children go, they would turn their lives into hell… I experienced teachers who believed that Romani children were scum.”

This very much echoes the story of Jana and Karel.  The siblings lived with their parents in the city of České Budějovice, southern Bohemia, in a tenement house inhabited by several other Romani families. Their street was within the catchment area of one of the ‘elite’ primary schools of the city. The only other Romani pupil there was a girl in the 8th grade. Karel was in the 5th and Jana was in the 3rd grade. Karel recalls the severe bullying his sister experienced on a daily basis four years ago.

“They were pushing her around, they called her black mouth, [told her] that she didn’t know anything, that she looked disgusting… they did everything on purpose. They hid her shoes… it was snowing so I had to bring her home on my back.” 

Jana developed a complete aversion to school. “She was afraid to go.” Although Karel complained about the bullying, the help he was hoping for did not come. He said: “we told the director and she wouldn’t even listen to us. So I started to take care of it myself: I would fight with them. [When the teachers found out] I was the only one who got told off for fighting. And that’s when we stopped going to school, pretty much.”

When we approached the school director about the case, she denied any allegations of bullying. The children formally stayed in the school for one year but they practically stopped going to classes. They accumulated too many unauthorised absences which led to an intervention of social services, loss of custody over them by their parents and placement of both Jana and Karel in a children’s home.

“Puppies” and “kitties”

During the research, we encountered Romani children who told us that they are taught some classes separately from their non-Roma peers. Josef, a pupil in 5th grade told us that: “[t]hose who are slower [like us] go to a separate class [for mathematics and Czech language]. Only the brightest Roma stay in the class which is faster.”

In one of the schools we saw pupils in the 3rd grade separated into two groups called “puppies” and “kitties”. All the puppies were Romani children and the teacher explained to us that they were happy that way. When we asked later some of the “puppies” what would they want to change in their school, they said they would like to be taught together with the “kitties”.

In another city, we witnessed how a school in an attempt to attract and please the non-Roma parents, introduced a different schedule for the preparatory classes comprised mostly of Roma. The director explained: “The Romani pupils should not mix with the other children, even if they are in the same building and on the same floor... We want all the children to attend the school, the Roma community shouldn’t prevail. It shouldn’t come to the point where the other [non-Roma] families wouldn’t be interested in sending their children to our school.”

Several teachers and school directors that we met repeated a trope that Roma are not interested in education and therefore if their numbers exceed the invisible tipping point, the quality of education will deteriorate. Because of this, they found it adequate and legitimate that Roma could and in fact should be pushed either completely outside mainstream education, or separated on its margins. An understanding that these practices are actually unlawful and unnecessary was extremely rare.

How widespread and socially acceptable ethnic prejudice against Roma has become, was manifested in an astonishing response to our findings by the government minister who is in charge of educational policies in the Czech Republic. The Minister of Education declared that Roma need to realise that: "it is not normal to lay about in bed the whole morning and go to work instead". Statements like this make it difficult to muster much confidence in the government’s willingness to tackle the issue of discrimination of Roma in education. This is a bad signal for the country as a whole. As of September 2014, the Czech Republic is facing unprecedented infringement proceedings for violation of EU’s Race Equality Directive for school discrimination of Roma – a sign of how serious the problem is viewed not just by us but by the EU Commission. Unless the government comes up with an effective and specific set of measures on how to address this violation in everyday school practice, the Czech Republic may end up being referred to Court of Justice of the EU and potentially a severe financial sanction. This is a situation that any government would want to avoid but it should not have reached this point – the question is now do the Czech authorities have the political will to tackle this once and for all and stop failing thousands of children?

Read Barbora's most recent report Must Try Harder- Ethnic Discrimination of Romani Children in Czech Schools

Read more about the right to education of minorities and indigenous peoples, here.

Barbora Černušáková is a human rights researcher and Amnesty International’s expert on countries of East-Central Europe (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria). In her work she covers a range of human rights issues with a particular focus on discrimination against Roma, hate crimes and the rights of refugees and migrants. As part of her work for Amnesty International, Ms. Černušáková presented submissions to the human rights monitoring bodies within the UN system, as well as to the Council of Europe institutions and the European Parliament. She also authored a number of reports documenting human rights violations and drafted amicus briefs to national courts. Her reports on the right to education include “Must Try Harder”, a 2015 report on ethnic discrimination of Roma in Czech schools; “Unfulfilled Promises” a 2013 briefing on the failure of Slovak authorities to end Roma segregation in schools; or “Five More Years of Injustice”, a 2012 co-authored report on the lack of progress in implementation of the European Court judgment in the case of D.H. v the Czech Republic. Ms. Černušáková holds an MA degree in Political Sciences from the Comenius University in Bratislava, an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and an LLM from the Birkbeck School of Law, University of London. She is currently enrolled in a PhD programme in Sociology at the University of Manchester.


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