In Defence of Desegregation

Dimitrina Petrova

"October 11, 2002. We visited Gura Văii, outside of Oneşti. All of the Roma in Gura Văii live on Morii Street, away from the Romanians in the town. The roads were dirt, and due to morning rain, were very muddy. This settlement was not among the poorest that we saw... The school that the Romani children attend was in the middle of the settlement. We entered the school, which had to be opened by one of the teachers after repeated knocking because it was locked from the inside. There were only two rooms in the school. In one room, there was seating for twenty-two children, and in the other, there were twenty-four seats. It was a cold day, and there was no heat in the school, although there was a wood stove in the corner of one of the classrooms. There were no lights in either of the rooms or the entrance, and in fact, no electricity in the school. The Romani children were in class while we were in the school, and there were no books in either of the rooms. There were no textbooks for the children that I saw, no notebooks in front of any of the children, no pencils, no pens or any school supplies of any kind. There was no sign of a learning environment. One of the teachers, who would not give her name, told us that one hundred and sixty children were registered in the school. She also told us that there were four teachers. At around 2:00 PM when we went in the school, it was already dark inside and hard to see. From the outside, there was glass in all the windows, but I could see up under the roof the structure was not solid. This would likely allow much cold air in during the winter months.

We also visited the school that the Romanian children in Gura Văii attend. The school was much larger, with at least four classrooms. The school had electricity and heating and the children were not forced to sit in their jackets to stay warm as in the Romani school. In the class I saw, there were no Romani children, although the mayor had said that there were some. The classroom was large, the desks that the children sat at were in much better condition than those in the Romani school. The children in this school all had textbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils in front of them. There were plants all around and artwork that the students had produced, as opposed to the barren walls of the school in the Romani school. There was a playground in the schoolyard (there was no yard at the Romani school) with soccer and basketball nets. There was also a caretaker for the school."

(From ERRC archives: report from a field mission to Romania filed in October 2002).

The Roma are not the only ethnic minority in the world that lives separately from the surrounding society. But in the case of Roma, the separation is characterised by two major facts: (i) it is not the choice of the Roma themselves; all evidence suggests that most Roma want to live, study and work together with the rest of society but are vehemently rejected; (ii) the segregated settlements, schools and hospital rooms are not just separate, they are generally much poorer in quality. In the case of the Roma, these facts, seen in the context of entrenched, harsh racist attitudes against this pariah minority, define a case of racial segregation: a particularly egregious form of racial discrimination, an assault on human dignity condemned by international human rights law.

Article 3 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) provides: "States parties particularly condemn racial segregation and apartheid and undertake to prevent, prohibit and eradicate all practices of this nature in territories under their jurisdiction." In its General recommendation XIX (1995), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stipulated that "the obligation to eradicate all practices of this nature includes the obligation to eradicate the consequences of such practices undertaken or tolerated by previous Governments in the State or imposed by forces outside the State." The Committee further observed that "while conditions of complete or partial racial segregation may in some countries have been created by governmental policies, a condition of partial segregation may also arise as an unintended by-product of the actions of private persons." The case of residential segregation of Roma in Europe falls within the sphere of prohibited discrimination as interpreted by the Committee: "In many cities residential patterns are influenced by group differences in income, which are sometimes combined with differences of race, colour, descent and national or ethnic origin, so that inhabitants can be stigmatized and individuals suffer a form of discrimination in which racial grounds are mixed with other grounds."

Racial segregation of Roma in education exists in a variety of forms. The ERRC is currently undertaking extensive research in five Central and Eastern European countries to describe these forms in detail and recommend desegregation strategies. In the last few years, we have been actively and consistently advocating school and housing desegregation at a variety of domestic and international venues. The various patterns of segregated schooling in Europe can be divided into two main types: (i) Roma studying in "special schools" or "special classes" for the mentally retarded, where the official curricula are based on inferior academic standards, and (ii) Roma studying in separate or predominantly Romani schools and classes where the quality of education is lower, even in those cases where the official curriculum is supposedly being applied in full. In the second case, residential segregation of Roma is one of the factors of school segregation, but is not sufficient to explain its existence - as demonstrated by Mihai Surdu in this issue. Both types of segregation are an expression of a great social distance and constitute racial segregation, in violation of international anti-discrimination law.

This issue of Roma Rights comes after several years of work on segregation of Roma in Europe. We see segregation as an obstacle to accessing rights and we fight to remove it. With regard to the "special schools", we advocate legislative reform abolishing this type of schooling altogether. Even if special schools as they currently exist in Central and Eastern Europe were racially neutral, they are objectionable from the point of view of the rights of the mentally disabled. Mental disability rights advocates and educators have indicated methods of education for the mentally disabled that in most cases do not necessitate the segregation of the mentally disabled in separate facilities. Additionally, in practice, the "special schools" for the mentally disabled in Central and Eastern Europe in which Roma are overrepresented are schools for children with mild mental disability, for which normal school combined with proper support provides the best educational opportunities.

Similarly, to desegregate the Romani ghetto schools and the various separate Romani classes, new anti-discrimination legislation is needed that would acknowledge the harm done by racial segregation and outlaw schooling that is segregated on racial or ethnic grounds as inherently unequal, and therefore violating the equal protection provisions of the constitutions and international law. As Branimir Pleše explains in this issue, ERRC lawyers are currently arguing, in litigation challenging segregated classes in Croatia, that in the field of public education, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. We want to see European courts agree with the reasoning of the US Supreme Court of forty-eight years ago when it decided the case of Brown v. the Board of Education: "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other 'tangible' factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does … To separate … [children] … from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Desegregating the Romani schools can begin with direct civic action, from below, without relying at first on state sanction, as in the case of the first successful demonstration project in Vidin in 2000-2001, followed by projects in six other cities in Bulgaria. In these projects, the inspired designer of which is OSI Roma Participation Program director Rumyan Russinov, teachers, educators, Romani and non-Romani experts and activists have actively cooperated in the provision of appropriate educational support that is ensuring successful integration of the children. The success is evident in the academic grades of Romani children in their new schooling environment. But to eradicate segregated schooling, the governments of the countries where Roma live must develop and implement comprehensive national action plans for the transfer of Romani children from all types of segregated schools and classes to mainstream, regular schools and classes, with accompanying support programs to ease the transition and adaptation process. Governments must also ensure that adequate resources are allocated for school desegregation action. It is of critical importance also to introduce, in countries where this has not yet been done, free, mandatory and integrated pre-school programmes for all children, which would obviously have a positive impact on the desegregation process.

The "special schools" with overrepresentation of Roma are typical and better described in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, but can be found in a number of other countries as well. In the Czech Republic, over 70 percent of all Romani children of school age go to the inferior special schools and are stigmatized for life as mentally handicapped. The figures for Slovakia and Hungary are also very high but less clearly established. In the Czech special schools system, the educational standards for a given school class correspond to those of two classes lower: a pupil who has graduated from e.g. 4th grade in the special school can demonstrate scholastic achievement expected of 2nd class of normal school. There is less emphasis on mathematics, science and language, and more on music and applied art. Similar is the situation in Slovakia: "My daughter was transferred to special school after the 1st grade – she is there already for 2 years and doesn't even recognise the letters of the alphabet – if she were in the primary school, I am sure she would already have learned that," said one Romani mother from Letanovce to the ERRC in October 2002. In Hungary, we have documented cases of abuse of parental consent in allocating Romani children to special schools. On September 13, 2002, a Romani mother told ERRC: "My daughter started primary school in a normal class, but she felt that she received no attention from teachers as opposed to her non-Romani classmates. Due to the negligence of the teacher she failed one time. She was taken to the remedial special class immediately. I was not even asked or informed about it in time, only after the transfer. They said that she could not keep up with the others, so they transferred her. I suffered because my child felt very bad. She was labeled stupid, although she might have just needed some more attention." The testing procedure for special schools is not racially neutral. A non-Romani teacher in a remedial special school in Budapest stated to ERRC on November 18, 2002: "Romani children are usually enrolled in remedial special school without seeing the normal school. The transfer, in fact, is often based on the single opinion from the 30 minutes long examination of the expert committee. Non-Romani children usually get two or three chances and have already failed the second or third year of the school several times when they are transferred to a remedial special school. Many Roma are placed there immediately."

Unlike the special schools, the "normal" segregated schools, in which Roma are either over-represented or constitute the only ethnic group educated there, for the most part follow the same mandatory national curricula and in theory should apply the same standards of academic achievement. But even in cases where the standard curriculum is applied, the proven fact is that such schools provide worse education due to less qualified and less motivated teacher body, crowded classrooms, worse material basis and racist prejudice as regards the Roma attitudes to education. Interviews with principals and teachers confirm the low level of education provided by segregated classes and schools attended by Romani pupils even though the official standards may be the same as the national norm. Romani pupils are usually blamed for this situation, because of their alleged low interest in school.

While the Czech government has acknowledged the dimensions and gravity of the problem of the special schools, it is dragging its feet on abolishing the system. The former Hungarian government, which exited the scene in April 2002, was in complete denial with regard to both special schools and other forms of racial segregation. In the current centre-left government of Hungary, desegregation is being promoted, and a former ERRC staff member, Viktória Mohácsi Bernáthné, is in charge of implementing it. The Hungarian Prime Minister Medgyessi declared that ending segregation would be a policy priority. In Bulgaria, the Ministry of Education and Science, in its Instruction for Integration of Minority Children and Pupils of September 9, 2002, demanded ending of the placement of children in segregated schools in Roma neighborhoods.

According to many educational experts, donors, politicians and activists, it is all right to support children in a separated environment if it is their parents' choice, or if the surrounding community is too hostile and not ready to accept change. They claim that young children cannot carry the burden of the failure of the adult community to deal with racism. The ERRC takes the opposite view. Racially segregated schooling is inherently bad and a violation of a basic constitutional right, that of equal treatment. As in many human rights abuse cases, outsiders claim that it is the choice of victims themselves to preserve the situation of disadvantage. In our view, Roma are coerced into accepting racial segregation that undermines and harms them. Like in so many other Roma rights abuses – from sterilisations of Romani women to accepting substandard housing to parental signatures agreeing to assign a child to a school for the mentally handicapped, informed consent is absent. The latter implies knowledge about the consequences of a choice, as well as the knowledge and availability of alternative choices and the consequences thereof.

Unfortunately, substantial funds are spent in Central and Eastern Europe, by inertia but also due to interests of lobby groups, on all kinds of educational programmes for Roma which, citing the complexity of issues surrounding the education of Roma children, advocate a "comprehensive approach" that involves everything but desegregation. Donors advised by educationalists whose only aim is to improve the quality of Romani education, fund projects to improve the Romani ghetto schools, to enlighten the Romani parents and the Romani community about the benefits of sending their children to school, and train teachers to be more tolerant to diversity. But they do not do one crucial simple thing: enrolling Romani children in mixed schools and keeping them there. The overwhelming part of the activities on Romani education over the past decade has failed to challenge the status quo of segregated education. Nor did such projects prevent further segregation. The opponents of desegregation have made every effort to present it as a mechanistic busing of children from one place to another, while the handful of advocates that are making a real difference by effectively desegregating Romani schools have been ridiculed as narrow-minded and impatient activists. Such struggles were quite intense for example in Bulgaria, as well as at the level of international philanthropy.

It is a misguided policy to work towards assuring schools success for Romani children in the racially segregated schools and to define such success as a prerequisite for the integration of the Roma in the mainstream society. On the contrary, school desegregation in the view of the ERRC is the first step and the backbone of Romani integration. Without it, school success in a ghetto school is inadequate once the child is out in the larger world, competing with non-Roma for university placements or for jobs. Even if the receiving school proves to be a hostile environment for children, ERRC is opposed to any improvement of ghetto schools and insists that these have to be abolished in a short period of time not exceeding five to seven years. Eliminating the current educational disadvantage of the Roma created by segregated schooling must in our view be addressed as a matter of urgency. We do not believe in teaching tolerance first and applying the knowledge only after the lesson is learned. Societies as well as individuals will not learn to be more tolerant before they start to act as if they are. The best project of ethnic tolerance training is the lived experience of the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and policies.

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