Second-Class Kids

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Nikol Pechova was as excited about starting school as any little girl. But the thrill soon wore off. Nikol says her classmates pushed her around, called her Gypsy, and refused to sit next to her, accusing her of having headlice. The Roma girl from Ostrava, an industrial city in the east of the Czech Republic, was also unable to keep up with the school's demanding curriculum. Her absenteeism soared and her grades plummeted. "She was coming home crying almost every day," says her mother, Berta Cervenakova.

Nikol's problems got so bad that the school referred her to a psychologist, who recommended she transfer to what is officially called a special school, but what is widely regarded as a dead-end institution for the mentally deficient. A majority of Czech Roma children the republic's Roma population is estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000 end up in these schools. Most of them are not mentally deficient at all but rather victims of racial prejudice and an education system which has little sympathy for cultural diversity.

Cervenakova says she agreed to her daughter's transfer in early 1998 because of the promise of a simplified curriculum and more patient and better-qualified teachers. What she wasn't told, she claims, is that she was condemning Nikol to a life of menial labor because special school education is so limited that it offers little chance of reaching nonvocational secondary education. The vast majority of Roma parents have resigned themselves to having the brakes put on their children this way, but Cervenakova decided to fight the system. Early last year she started looking for a way to return Nikol to a mainstream school. "I felt terrible. I felt like I'd robbed her of her future," she says.

And she joined an application by the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It challenges the Czech government on what it terms "systematic racial segregation and discrimination" in Czech schools. Filed April 18, the application also represents 17 other Roma children from Ostrava. The ERRC argues that special school students are deprived of equal opportunities, stigmatized as "stupid" or "retarded" and have been forced to study in "racially segregated classrooms and hence are denied the benefits of a multicultural educational environment." It says many Roma parents have been misled into making an uninformed decision to transfer their children, or that they have not given formal consent.

An ERRC survey in Ostrava last year found that while Roma represent fewer than 5% of the city's primary students, they make up more than half the special school population. "Governments can scream all they want about the Roma having to help themselves, but if they can't get a fair break in school, they are not really going to be able to do that," says James Goldston, a Budapest-based U.S. lawyer, who is managing the litigation.

The Czech Republic's Roma community was hit hard by the fall of communism in 1989. While paving the way for democracy, it also opened the floodgates to racial discrimination and intolerance. This has contributed to 70-90% unemployment among the Roma, including Nikol's parents. They share a two-bed-room apartment with their four children, living off social welfare and the occasional odd job in construction.

The first teacher Nikol had when she started at state school in 1997 was Dagmar Eliasova. She shows little sympathy for her former pupil's situation. "Nikol kept doing everything else but what she was supposed to do," says Eliasova. "We would practice writing and she would be drawing ... She didn't pay attention. She had the mentality of a kindergarten kid."

This is how many Roma children can come across to teachers, says Helena Balabanova, director of a church-established mainstream school in Ostrava. Her school which Nikol was transferred to last year is trying to address the special needs of its predominantly Roma students with the help of eight Roma educational assistants, a full-time social worker and 19 teachers, two of whom are also Roma. Balabanova points out that most Roma children don't speak much Czech when they enter school. "In first grade we teach them words like tap and curtains. Many don't know them," she says. Upbringing is another important difference, says Balabanova. "Their parents do not say, You will get chocolate after you eat lunch,' they give them the chocolate. These children do not know that they are not supposed to interrupt when an adult is speaking, that they can't walk around the classroom or snack when they want to."

Nikol, a petite 10-year-old with a wide smile and black wavy hair, received one B on her mid-year report card; the rest were As. At her first school she got an overall D, one step short of failing. Says Nikol, who wants to be a model one day: "I enjoy reading and writing best ... They didn't like me at the [first] school."

The Czech government says it is planning to abolish special schools and to try to integrate Roma children within the mainstream, but it is still far from fully admitting that the present system is faulty. "Roma children [at special schools] are not receiving inferior education," says Marta Tepla, of the special education department at the Czech Ministry of Education. "They are very physically and musically talented, very crafty, and the [educational] program is tailor-made to suit them. It is very practical. It has a lot of physical education, music, various workshops."

The Roma families now applying to the European Court of Human Rights might agree with much of what Tepla says. But they would add that, if given the chance, the Roma can also produce good doctors and lawyers.