Roma sue school in northeastern Hungary: The submission against the principalof the Ferenc Pethe Primary School, Tiszavasvári, Hungary

Throughout central and eastern Europe, the educational potential of Romani children is not realised. In some areas, for example, Roma are simply not in school. For example, in Romania, schooling is tied to legal residence in a locality and many Roma are unable to acquire these documents. During field research in Romania in 1996 and 1997, the ERRC met with Roma in the city of Cluj who did not have legal residence permits in Cluj; they had been expelled from other municipalities and the Cluj authorities were not willing to grant them legal residence in their present place of residence, which is a dump site. Their children were therefore blocked from attending school.

Roma are also rare in secondary education everywhere around the region and almost completely absent from higher education. In a recent report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the government of the Republic of Macedonia reported that nine Roma were enrolled in the country’s two main universities and constituted a fraction of one percent of persons in higher education in Macedonia, despite the fact that reasonable estimates put the number of Roma in Macedonia at 150,000 to 200,000, up to ten percent of the total population.

Central to the problem of Roma and education is segregation in the school system, a segregation insprired by pervasive anti-Romani discrimination. Throughout central, southern and eastern Europe, Roma are in separate classes or separate schools. Romani children are disproportionately represented in so-called “special schools” - schools for the mentally disabled. In the Czech Republic, for example, the chances that a Romani child will be placed in a special school is fifteen times higher than that of a non-Romani child.

On June 19, 1997, the Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs published an article in which it exposed the fact that a primary school in the northeastern Hungarian town of Tiszavasvári had held separate graduation ceremonies for Romani and non-Romani children. It subsequently emerged that the school had separate dining facilities for its Romani and non-Romani students. With the assistance of the Foundation for Romani Civil Rights in Budapest, fourteen Romani youths sued the school as represented by its principal. Their submission to the court follows:

Honourable Nyíregyháza City Court,

The undersigned, Csaba Vadász, Attila Ábri, Róbert Lakatos, Ildikó Lakatos, János Balogh Jr., Otilia Balogh, József Lakatos Jr., János Lakatos, Gyula Rézmûves Jr., Oszkár Makula, Irén Ábri, Péter Lakatos and Sándor Rostás Jr., plaintiffs, graduated from the Ferenc Pethe Primary School, of which the defendant is the principal, on  June 12, 1997. This year, a total of seventeen Romani youths graduated. Their graduation ceremony was organised by the school administration to be held at a different time from the graduation ceremony of the other students.

This fact is only the ultimate expression of the former and continuing discriminatory educational policy, conducted by the Administration of the Ferenc Pethe Primary School of Tiszavasvári, or more specifically indirectly by the defendant, as the principal of this institution.

Out of the 14,844 inhabitants of Tiszavasvári, approximately 16-17% are Roma who live on the edge of the city. Romungros (Hungarian Roma) living in the Büd area of the city are more readily accepted by the majority of the city’s inhabitants than those of the Vlach Roma residing in the Széles Road residential area. We, the plaintiffs, belong to the latter group.

There are three primary schools operating in the settlement, one of which is the Ferenc Pethe Primary School. The number of the pupils there in 1997 was 531, of which 38 individuals are mentally handicapped. The number of Romani pupils is 250, of which 5 are learning in so-called mixed classes, 207 in normal, so-called Romani classes, and 38 individuals are in classes for the mildly mentally handicapped. The Hungarian Romani children of the Romani district of Büd attend the other primary school, named after Pál Vasváry.

The János Kabai Primary School is attended by virtually no Roma. The teaching personnel, academic level, and technical equipment are best here.

There are two units in the Ferenc Pethe school, one of which is in good repair, a well-equipped central school, to which the gymnasium and the buffet belong. This part is not attended by Romani pupils. The auxiliary buildings, the parts of the school in which the Romani lower and upper classes are located, are two hundred and three hundred metres away from the main building of the school. These auxiliary buildings are in very bad repair, and apart from benches and blackboards, there is no educational equipment. The most disgraceful form of apartheid here is that Romani children are forbidden to buy food in the school buffet and are not allowed to use the gymnasium.

Romani and non-Romani children in the school have been separated in this way for eleven years. Mrs Ferenc Gáspár, a teacher there, told a reporter from the newspaper Magyar Narancs (Magyar Narancs, June 19, 1997, “Graduation in Separate Ways”), “Hungarian parents requested that this separation be implemented, otherwise they would not enrol their children in this school. The non-Romani parents even sponsored the establishment of a separate dining room for their children. The school administration stated that in the combined Romani classes, a single teacher delivers all the lectures.”

The climax of this eleven-year-old story was the separate graduation ceremony, which violated the law. No objection to the “Romani graduation ceremony” was raised by the settlement’s local government, which maintains the school. We Romani children attending this school and forbidden from attending classes with Hungarian children have learned that we have no other place in this country’s society but among its second-class citizens. The practice of complete isolation throughout our schooling has led to insurmountable social handicaps, resulting in the probability that we will never be able to become competitive in the employment market.

In the school, separate records were, and still are, maintained: the “C” classes are for Roma (“Cigány” in Hungarian). This violates the paragraphs of the minority law which grant the freedom to choose one’s identity and, furthermore, the data protection law, which considers ethnic identity to be a private issue and therefore protected, personal information.

We have never been asked if we require a bilingual educational programme, although the local government claims additional normative support from the state budget. We do not know how this support is used: perhaps a part of it is spent on extra tuition for those students who request it, something we do not consider to be an ethnic programme.

Mandated by the Law on the Parliamentary Ombudsmen, the Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities initiated a legal procedure against this illegal discriminatory behaviour. The aim of the legal procedure was to clarify whether the separate graduation ceremony of the Romani youngsters for the 1996-1997 academic year in the primary school in Tiszavasvári violated legal rules or not, or, more specifically, whether it is discriminatory that Romani students learn in a separate building and are not allowed to use the school buffet and gymnasium.

The Ombudsman undertook investigation on the basis of documents gathered and observations made during on-site inspection and established the following:

  1. The ban on the use of the school’s gymnasium is objectionable because according to the available information, no formal decision brought about this, and also because the local government, which maintains the school, did not object to the practice of the school’s leaders to forbid the use of the gymnasium.
  2. Considering that there was not always a correlation between the risk of infection put forward as the reason for the above and restrictions on  making use of the gymnasium, the ban also affected uninfected persons.1
  3. With respect to the separate graduation ceremony of the Romani students, the Ombudsman established that, due to the collective character of the decision, it affected infected and uninfected students equally. Although discriminatory intent on behalf of the board of teachers cannot be proved, the events- that is, the lack of preparation of the graduation and the manner of its execution- resulted in discrimination.

On the basis of the above, we hold that the defendant, by the behaviour described in detail in the foregoing, violated our rights as laid down in the Constitution, as well as in Article 4(7) of Law 79 of 1993 on Public Education and, furthermore, in Law 77 of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities, which prohibits any kind of discrimination against private persons on the basis of their gender, race, nationality or religious conviction. The same is prohibited by Article 76 of the Civil Code, which establishes that the above means the violation of personal rights.

On the basis of the above facts, Article 84(1) of the Civil Code, Article 70/K of the Constitution, I hereby submit a claim against the defendant, Principal of the Ferenc Pethe Primary School of Tiszavasvári and plead to the Honourable Court to establish on the basis of Article 84(1)(a) of the Civil Code, that the defendant, through the behaviour described above, violated our personal rights and, on the basis of paragraph (b) prohibit the continuation of the violation of the law via separate educational practices, separate graduation ceremonies, and having certain parts of the school off limits to Romani students, and on the basis of paragraph (e) oblige the defendant to pay HUF 500,000, that is, five hundred thousand forints, per person, as compensation for the moral damages suffered by the plaintiffs.

Attached to the claim please find the power of attorney of our legal representative and the results of the study carried out by the Ombudsman for the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities.

On the basis of Article 62 paragraph (1)(f) of Law 93 of 1990 on Duties and Charges enacted in the year of 1990, this application qualifies for a waiver of court fees. These fees have therefore thus far not been paid.

Respectfully,

Csaba Vadász, Attila Ábri, Róbert Lakatos, Ildikó Lakatos, János Balogh Jr., Otilia Balogh, József Lakatos Jr., János Lakatos, Gyula Rézmûves Jr., Gyula Rézmûves Jr., Oszkár Makula, Irén Ábri, Péter Lakatos, Sándor Rostás Jr. (plaintiffs)

Two hearings have thus far taken place at the Nyiregyháza city court in connection with the Tiszavasvári complaint, the most recent on May 8. Thus far, only the plaintiffs have been heard. An third hearing is set for June 26, at which point the rest of the plaintiffs, the class teacher of the Romani students, the principal of the school and the mayor of Tiszavasvári are scheduled to testify.

Endnote:

  1. According to the vice-director of the school, both the segregated graduation and the practice of not allowing Roma to use the school’s gymnasium were for hygienic reasons: there are many students who have lice or eczema.

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