ERRC hosts family meeting in Ostrava, Czech Republic

Claude Cahn

The ERRC hosted a meeting of Romani parents and extended family members on February 14 in the Don Bosco community centre in Ostrava, in northeast Czech Republic. The purpose of the meeting was manifold. In the first place, the ERRC hoped to strengthen local participation in several ERRC community projects on anti-discrimination in the Ostrava area. The ERRC further hoped to provide a brief introduction to the rights available to Romani parents, especially in the area of education. The occasion was seen as an opportunity to discuss education in light of the problematic of discrimination. Additionally, the gathering was a forum in which Romani family members could meet with individuals working locally, nationally and internationally on their behalf, pose questions, discuss problems, and become further informed as to the various services available to them in the non-governmental community.

Discussions of Roma and education in the Czech Republic are often burdened by painstaking attempts to avoid the issue of discrimination. The term "discrimination" is the subject of widespread misunderstanding and communication failure in the Czech Republic and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Czechs, like other Europeans, are often loath to recognise that it is possible to act out a range of unfair and generalised presumptions about a particular ethnic group or nationality in the fullest of good will. The result is often a tendency toward witch-hunt when discrimination is recognised as problematic at all. In other instances, discriminatory practices are the subject of complete and utter denial in public discussion.

It is in such an atmosphere that the ERRC has approched the problem of the over-representation of Roma in so-called "special schools" - schools for the mentally handicapped. Certain schools, such as the Halasova special school in the Vitkovice neighbourhood of Ostrava have 95% Romani student bodies; over half of the special school population of Ostrava is Romani; between 40% and 50% of Romani children of school-age in Ostrava currently receive the bulk of their education in schools for the mentally handicapped. Most persons working in the field agree that the problem lies not in the nature of special education in the Czech Republic, but rather in the treatment of Roma in the normal school system. Nevertheless, discussion often descends to the level of accusations on the part of (non-Romani) special educators about the nature of Romani parents and families.

The government's response, on the other hand, has been to propose school reform which, in its most extreme form, would simply dissolve special schools and replace them with special classes in normal schools. In late 1998, Učitelské Noviny, the journal of educational issues in the Czech Republic, published an interview with Marie Teplá of the Department of Specialised Schooling and Institutional Education of the Ministry of Schooling, Youth and Sport, in which she posited school reform measures which would "...mean the end of special schools in the form of the direct fusion of basic and specialised education." More recent government statements on the issue do not envision so thorough-going a change in the second system. Neither response - blaming Romani parents or abolishing special schools - addresses the issue of discrimination in the school system.

Building consensus among Roma and non-Roma as to the importance of discrimination in the decisions which determine where Romani children are educated is an important part of the work of the ERRC. Ostrava, with its large Romani community and its polarised community relations is an important place to work in this area.

The meeting began with a short concert by a local Romani children's choir. This was followed by a presentation by the ERRC on discrimination in education. Next, the assembled group of approximately two hundred Romani parents and children heard short talks by persons working in the field such as Ms Helena Balabanová, director of the Přemysl Pittr Parochial School; Mr Karel Holomek, chairman of the Association of Romanies in Moravia and member of the Czech government's Inter-Office Commission on Affairs of the Romani Community; Mr Miroslav Holub, chairman of the Democratic Union of Roma and also a member of the Inter-Office Commission; Mr Petr Horváth, president of the Ostrava branch of the Association of Romanies in Moravia.

The floor was then opened to those in attendance. Many Romani parents shared their frustration at the difficulties Romani children face in basic school; the lack of support available to them from the educational community; the fact that the bulk of interaction between Romani parents and educators takes place when schools call parents over some problem. Most of the parents present expressed dismay or outrage that their children attended schools for the mentally handicapped - schools which offer extremely limited prospects to graduates. Others more pessimistically wondered what good qualifications are in a job market which has little to offer Roma. The meeting became heated at only one point, when one non-Romani special educator from an overwhelmingly Romani school challenged Romani parents in attendance to take a greater interest in their children's education and called into question the qualifications of the ERRC in the field.

The intensity of emotions about the issue notwithstanding, the meeting was pleasantly informal. Parents and family brought children, who wandered in and out of the hall during discussions. Coffee, juice and cakes were served. Presentations and comments were kept focussed and brief by the skillful moderation of Mr Mikuláš Horváth. Many of the participants lingered after the end of the proceedings to continue discussion. The ERRC will likely fund two human rights education projects in Ostrava, as well as continuing to engage in other forms of anti-discrimination activity in the area. The meeting, it is hoped, is only the beginning of activity aimed at strengthening the Ostrava Romani community in the difficult and contested process of claiming their inalienable rights.

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