Lawsuits filed by Roma challenge racial segregation in Czech schools

James Goldston

On June 15, 1999, a group of Romani children in the Czech city of Ostrava, assisted by local counsel and the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), filed legal complaints in Czech courts to challenge their segregation in special schools for the mentally deficient. The lawsuits are filed simultaneously with the publication by ERRC in both English and Czech of the Country Report A Special Remedy: Roma and Schools for the Mentally Handicapped in the Czech Republic.

The lawsuits, filed with the Czech Constitutional Court and the Ostrava School Bureau, charge the Czech Ministry of Education and local school authorities with segregating the plaintiffs and numerous other Romani children into remedial special schools for the mentally deficient because they are Roma. The result has been a denial of equal educational opportunity for most Romani children. The complaints demand a judicial finding of racial segregation, the establishment of a compensatory educational fund, and the development and adoption of a plan to achieve racial balance in Ostrava schools within three years. Racial segregation and discrimination in education violate the Constitution of the Czech Republic, the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, other provisions of domestic law, and numerous binding international treaties including the European Convention on Human Rights.

The evidence documented in the legal complaints shows that, in the district of Ostrava, Romani children outnumber non-Roma in special schools by a proportion of more than twenty-seven to one. Although Roma represent fewer than 5% of all primary school-age students in Ostrava, they constitute 50% of the special school population. Nationwide, as the Czech government itself concedes, approximately 75% of Romani children attend special schools, and more than half of all special school students are Roma. This extraordinary racial disparity constitutes what a United Nations committee of experts has condemned as „de facto racial segregation" in the field of education, which is inconsistent with the government's obligations under international law.

As a result of their segregation in dead-end schools for the „retarded", the plaintiffs, like many other Romani children in Ostrava and around the nation, have suffered severe educational, psychological and emotional harm, including the following:

  • they have been subjected to a curriculum far inferior to that in basic schools;
  • they have been effectively denied the opportunity of ever returning to basic school;
  • they have been prohibited by law and practice from entrance to non-vocational secondary educational institutions, with attendant damage to their opportunities to secure adequate employment;
  • they have been stigmatised as „stupid" or „retarded" with effects that will brand them for life, including diminished self-esteem and feelings of humiliation, alienation and lack of self-worth;
  • they have been forced to study in racially segregated classrooms and hence denied the benefits of a multi-cultural educational environment.

Race-neutral factors fail adequately to explain this gross racial disparity. Thus, few openly maintain the fiction that Roma, as a race, are genetically less intelligent. Those who do are confronted with a virtual consensus among government officials and acknowledged experts that many Roma assigned to special schools are not, in fact, mentally deficient. In addition, evidence that will be produced by the plaintiffs demonstrates that the evaluation mechanisms employed to assess „intelligence" are flawed and unreliable:

  • Many of the tests have been selected, and their results continue to be used, even though they have previously been shown to generate racially-disproportionate effects;
  • Few, if any, Roma were consulted in the selection or design of the most commonly used tests;
  • None of these tests have ever been validated for the purpose of assessing Romani children in the Czech Republic;
  • In administering tests to these and other Romani children, insufficient care has been taken to account for and overcome predictable cultural, linguistic and/or other obstacles which often negatively influence the validity of „intelligence" assessments;
  • No guidelines effectively circumscribe individual discretion in the administration of tests and the interpretation of results, leaving the assessment process vulnerable to influence by racial prejudice, cultural insensitivity and other irrelevant factors;
  • In practice, notwithstanding these flaws, educational evaluators and psychologists place undue weight on test results in making placement recommendations;
  • In violation of government regulations, once assigned to special schools, the plaintiffs, like most other Romani children, have not been adequately monitored to ensure the continuing suitability of their placement; hence, all the errors inherent in the initial testing and assignment procedure have been compounded and rendered permanent;
  • The notion of „inherent inferiority" is belied by the non-existence of a comparable statistical discrepancy along racial lines in specialized schools for the more severely disabled, where manifestations of disability are more objectively verifiable and less subject to influence by racial prejudice.

Nor are other attempts to explain away racial segregation more persuasive. Language problems are not an excuse. Their solution is language training — not labelling a child „retarded".

And, too, the generally lower socio-economic status of Roma does not by itself explain the statistical disparity in special schools. Many poor ethnic Czech children study and excel in basic schools. Moreover, any allegedly greater risk of mental or physical disease among Roma due to malnutrition and/or inadequate medical care would not explain why Roma are not similarly over-represented in schools for the physically disabled.

Finally, parental consent is a red herring. First, in Ostrava, as in other parts of the Czech Republic, numerous parents, including parents of some of the plaintiffs, have not been adequately informed of numerous facts of great significance, including the following:

  • that they have a right not to consent to placement in special schools;
  • that, once given, for all practical purposes, parental consent may not be withdrawn;
  • that, in practice, assignments to special school in Ostrava are permanent and irrevocable;
  • that graduates of special schools are effectively prohibited by law and practice from entrance to non-vocational secondary educational institutions, with attendant damage to their opportunities to secure adequate employment.

Indeed, Romani parents, like Czech society as a whole, are all too often mystified and overwhelmed by intelligence test results and evaluations by educational „experts". Parents often receive evaluation reports only at the very meeting with officials where their consent is sought — thus giving them little or no opportunity to review and assess the findings — and the reports are frequently communicated summarily, and/or in professional jargon which is unintelligible to the layperson.

Finally, a number of Romani parents, including parents of some of the plaintiffs, have consented to their children's placement in special schools out of reasonable fear of racial hostility against Roma in basic schools. The legal complaints contain substantial evidence which demonstrates that Romani children in Ostrava basic schools routinely encounter racially-offensive speech, racial exclusion (being forced to sit in the back of the class), and threats of racial violence on the part of teachers, administrators and non-Roma students. The evidence produced will include a letter from the police confirming a recent bomb threat at a basic school in Ostrava which demanded that all Romani children leave the school.

Given the crucial nature of the decision at issue, and the permanence of school assignments in practice, blaming the parents for consenting amounts to little more than a post hoc justification for an admittedly discriminatory policy.

The facts concerning the over-representation of Romani children in special schools have long been known. Nor does the present government vigorously dispute them. Indeed, a number of reform proposals are now under consideration in various government circles to address what is widely perceived to be a problem. To date, however, racial discrimination and segregation persist unchanged. Notwithstanding any current talk of reform, since well before 1989, Czech school authorities have knowingly assigned Romani children to special schools in disproportionate numbers. Thus, as far back as 1984, according to government statistics, half of all Romani students were attending remedial special school. The government's maintenance in force over many years of a policy generating massively discriminatory effects evidences, at a minimum, a willingness to tolerate the wholesale denial of educational opportunity to generation after generation of Romani children. The plaintiffs bringing these lawsuits are no longer willing to pay this price.

Accordingly, the legal complaints filed seek, cumulatively, the following remedies:

  1. a judicial finding that, having been placed in special schools absent adequate monitoring of the appropriateness of said placement(s), the plaintiffs have been the victims of racial discrimination and segregation in violation of Czech and international law;
  2. a judicial cancellation of the decisions to place plaintiffs in special schools;
  3. a judicial order that the defendants discontinue the violations by, inter alia,
    1. adequately monitoring the suitability of each plaintiff's placement and, where appropriate, offering each plaintiff the possibility to be transferred to basic school, if s/he wishes, and
    2. developing and implementing a plan to end racial segregation and discrimination and to achieve racial balance in Ostrava schools; and
  4. judicial order that the defendants restore plaintiffs to their situation, or its equivalent, prior to their subjection to racially discriminatory and segregative school placement policies, by, inter alia,
    1. providing compensatory education to plaintiffs to overcome the debilitating effects of discriminatory and segregative placement in special schools; and
    2. publishing a general apology to members of the Romani community in Ostrava for subjecting them to racial discrimination and segregation in education.

Failure to secure effective remedies in domestic courts will result in an application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

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