School Segregation Declared Unlawful by Hungarian Courts

Hungarian Courts Condemn Segregation of Children with Learning Disabilities

On 7 October 2004, in a major test case, the Budapest Metropolitan City Court of Appeals (Fővárosi ĂŤtélőtábla) upheld the first instance court decision, dated 1 June 2004, by which the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County Court ordered the primary school in Tiszatarján and the local governments of Tiszatarján and Hejőkürt respectively to pay damages in the total amount of 3 650 000 Hungarian forints (approximately 14600 euro), with accrued interest, to nine families whose children have been unlawfully kept in a segregated class and taught based on a special (inferior) curriculum from 1994 to 1999, in the absence of any prior certification declaring them mentally deficient and unable to attend regular classes. All of the children affected, most of them Romani, came from families with low income and social standing in the community and have accordingly had difficulties in asserting their legal rights and interests in the education context.

The complaint, filed in 2001 by attorney Lilla Farkas as part of a joint strategic litigation project undertaken by the Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities (NEKI) and the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), was based on the school psychologists' assessment that rather than being afforded additional support for their learning difficulties, it was "in the children's own best interest" to be placed in a special class for the mentally deficient, disregarding their age, pedagogical and psychological authority, and ultimately even the prescribed legal procedure. Moreover, following their segregation, the plaintiffs, otherwise pupils with normal IQs, were taught by an unqualified student-teacher and bullied by their peers as "retarded", thus further adding to their stigmatization.

In its judgment of 7 October 2003, the Budapest Metropolitan City Court of Appeals concluded that the segregation of the plaintiffs by the school and the local authorities was in breach of the Hungarian Public Education Act. It also stressed that as a result of this practice the plaintiffs have suffered and will continue to suffer profound psychological harm. In addition, the court held that the school had clearly failed to recognize and address the plaintiffs' learning difficulties and had instead chosen to administer an inferior curriculum which has jeopardized their future development. The court pointed out that on completing their studies the plaintiffs will suffer additional disadvantage in terms of diminished chances for further education as well as with regard to their employment opportunities compared to their peers schooled on the basis of the regular curriculum. Finally, the court concluded that the local authorities of Tiszatarján and Hejőkürt, in their capacity as funders and supervisors of the school in question, did not secure and maintain its lawful operation and held that this in and of itself amounts to major negligence.

NEKI and the ERRC welcome the ruling of the Budapest Metropolitan City Court of Appeals as a crucial precedent establishing that segregation and stigmatization of children with learning difficulties is both morally unacceptable and legally untenable. Throughout Europe, pupils of Romani origin suffer racial discrimination in education. Their overwhelmingly disproportionate placement in special schools or special classes for the mentally deficient, or in other forms of substandard, stigmatizing schooling arrangements, can have no reasonable and objective justification.

For additional details regarding the above judgement, please contact Ioana Banu, ERRC staff attorney (e-mail: ioana@errc.org, phone:+361 413 2200) and/or Lilla Farkas, attorney-at-law (e-mail: medial1@axelero.hu, phone: +36143214141).

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