ERRC Lawsuit Challenges Education Discrimination Against Romani Childrenin Bulgarian Schools

20 May 2003

The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) and local counsel announced at a press conference today in Sofia that they will file a lawsuit before the Sofia District Court on behalf of 29 Romani school children against the Ministry of Education, the Municipality of Sofia, and the 75th Todor Kableshkov School. The lawsuit, to be filed on May 21, alleges violations of Bulgarian and international law arising from the racial segregation of and discrimination against Romani students forced to attend poor-quality, all-Roma schools in Romani settlements in Sofia. Such actions violate constitutional guarantees of equality and the right to education, as well as international treaties to which Bulgaria is a party.

This lawsuit will be filed following completion of academic testing conducted by specialists from the Regional Inspectorate on Education which showed glaringly that Romani children attending a racially integrated educational environment, i.e. mixed or Bulgarian schools, performed much better compared to their peers attending the segregated Roma-only schools.

The schools where the plaintiffs are/were educated (some have already graduated) suffer from poor material conditions, including lack of heating and electricity and overcrowded classrooms. They lack adequate school supplies and textbooks and computer rooms, even though computer classes are compulsory within the framework of the national education program. The quality of education is severely affected by the excessively high number of pupils per teacher in classes in the all-Roma schools, lower expectations of the teachers, and frequent turnover of teachers due to the poor transportation and physical conditions of the schools. It is alleged that teachers demonstrate offensive attitudes toward children on grounds of their ethnic origin. Teachers are not prepared to work in a multicultural environment and have no programs to help children whose first language is Romani rather than Bulgarian.

The number of children in the classrooms far exceeds the limits set by the Ministry of Education. For example, in the 75th Todor Kableshkov school in the Fakulteta settlement in Sofia, there are ten first-grade classes with an average of 34 children per class, where Ministry of Education rules proscribe between 17 and 22 children in the first four grades. The second-, third- and fourth-grade classes have an average of 29, 32, and 36 children per class, respectively. With respect to the higher grades, while Ministry rules require between 22 and 26 children per class in grades 5 to 12, this school has an average of 36, 38, 29, 34, 41, and 39 children per class in grades 5 to 10. In grades 11 and 12, there are only 26 and 16 students in the entire grade, respectively, clear evidence of the very high dropout rate suffered by Romani students.

Educational achievements in these segregated schools are much lower than in integrated schools. In academic testing conducted by specialists from the Regional Inspectorate on Education, the results of the children in Roma-only schools are significantly lower than those of children in mixed and Bulgarian schools. For example, in math tests, 18 out of 19 Romani students attending an integrated school did well, as did 27 out of 28 ethnic Bulgarian students. By contrast, in a segregated Roma-only school, only 3 out of 18 did well. In the 75th School, out of 121 Romani students tested, only 16 performed the math test well. Even after 12 years of education, some of the Romani children in the 75th school could not write a basic sentence in Bulgarian.

“As a result of the inferior education they receive, these students are ill-prepared to compete in the labor market and unable to meet the requirements of university exams,” said lead attorney Alexander Kashimov. “The stigma of segregation leads to feelings of low self-esteem, a lack of self-confidence, and emotional distress. The message of inferiority is one they will carry for the rest of their lives.”

These actions by state and local authorities and the Roma-only schools violate the Bulgarian Law on Education and the Bulgarian constitution as well as international treaties incorporated into Bulgarian law by the constitution. These include the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This case is one of several challenges to illegal segregation brought by the European Roma Rights Center before both domestic and international courts. A case against the Czech Republic based on the disproportionately high placement of Romani children in schools for the mentally retarded is currently pending before the European Court of Human Rights, and the ERRC announced last week the filing of an action against Croatia based upon segregated Roma-only classrooms in regular schools before the European Court.


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