Cenek Ruzicka: Czech state participates in the illegal segregation of Romani children
Cenek Ruzicka, President of the Committee for the Redress of the Roma Holocaust, gave a speech at a recent public hearing in the Czech Senate on the education of Romani children. His remarks are published in full below.
Esteemed Chairperson, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good afternoon. Permit me to thank the organizers for the opportunity to speak today on this topic. I would also like to thank Mr Holub for getting it onto the agenda. He selected me to assist him and it was my honor to do so.
By way of introduction I would like to note that for generations, healthy Romani children have been educated here in what were first called “auxiliary” schools, then “special” schools, then “specialized” schools, and most recently “practical” schools - which is to say, in schools designated by law for the mentally and physically disabled. This approach has been completely unjustified, it is illegal, and it has lasted for almost half a century. Unfortunately, in some cases, parents have also contributed toward this state of affairs.
Since this approach has gone on for so long, it occurs almost automatically today, because there is almost a societal demand for it. Connections between school directors and educational-psychological counseling centers also play a role – this is obvious and we are finally starting to talk about it, albeit clumsily. This illegal behavior occurs with the quiet contribution of the state, and the participation of parents in this process is also evident. The reasons for parents’ often uninformed agreement to their children being assigned to special education classes are also obvious.
The parents of these children were themselves education in “special schools” for the most part and are concerned that their children might be bullied and ridiculed in regular schools. These parents also have experience with what is going on around them. Even if their children were to acquire a more valuable education, they are most often unlikely to get commensurate work, simply because they are Roma.
Last but not least, in addition to other obstacles which I could name, the greater financial demand on parents that education at regular schools imposes also plays a role in these decisions. Here I must remind you that almost 90 % of Roma of working age are unemployed, the vast majority of them through no fault of their own.
I understand why these parents consent to their children being placed in “special schools”, but I personally cannot agree with it. Our priority should be to insist our children get the chance of a better life.
How can we motivate these parents not to resign themselves to the status quo? This must happen naturally, in a way that respects the Roma mindset. The final link in any motivation process must be played by a natural Romani authority figure from the community. While most of the time such people have achieved only minimal educations (at least according to majority-society ideas), they are rich in life experience. These people can be found in every larger Romani family, not to mention the ghetto. I must emphasize that selecting the right person is key, and I would also underscore that appropriate service and good financial compensation for this person must be available.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We also face a much more complicated, difficult task than motivating Romani families to change their approach to their children’s education. That task is winning over school directors, founders, and teachers to embrace change, whether at regular or special educational schools. Naturally, I do not want to generalize; a certain number of regular school directors have no problem accepting Romani children. However, a large number of teachers have been employed in “special schools” for almost half a century, and their employment depends on there being an adequate number of pupils at these schools. The fewer pupils enrolled in special educational or “practical” classes, the less these teachers will be needed, and the less money these schools will receive. The job losses due to the threat that a school will close for lack of pupils pose a big obstacle.
Here I would remind you of the recent research which reports that 27 % of all Romani children attending mandatory schooling are being educated in special education classes. Amnesty International, the human rights support organization, states in one of its numerous reports that “practical schools” desgned for pupils with light mental disability have school populations that are more than 80 % Roma – and drawing from my own experience, I would estimate an even higher number than that.
However, I see the greatest obstacle as being the unwillingness of regular school directors to accept Romani children. Here again, there is the risk that when such a school accepts a higher number of Romani children, the parents of the majority-society children will remove their children from the school. Amazingly enough, some of the first parents to do so are usually local politicians. I wish I were wrong, but this is what is going on. Once again – this is due to concerns about jobs and school closures.
How can we exit this vicious circle? What shall we do with the information that according to official research, almost 90 % of the majority population does not want a Romani family as neighbors? Segregated schools, even regular ones, are unacceptable to us. Children need role models, people they try to emulate in their learning. The distance and intolerance between the majority and minority will only increase otherwise.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Knowing all that I know about the obstacles to educating our children and relations between the majority and the minority, a solution has occurred to me whch I believe could operate both with respect to Romani parents and with respect to school directors, founders and teachers. What is needed is a motivational approach. I am convinced that the main engine of such motivation should be financing. Esteemed participants, let’s not fool ourselves: Money, as you know, is almost all-powerful. The state should know how to make these investments so as to get a return. What this means is there is a need for the political will to finance those who cooperate with policy changes and to persist until those changes take hold. There is a need to invest more money into the pre-school training of children. The unwillingness of some parents to send their children to nursery school again can be managed through appropriate motivation with the aid of locally-based, natural authority figures from the Roma community.
I am convinced it is possible to communicate very well with Romani parents. I am convinced of this on a daily basis. Moreover, in 2006 we had the opportunity to try out such communication when we organized some rather large gatherings in several major towns. These gatherings were attended by between 200 – 300 Romani parents to whom we explained the importance and necessity of educating their children in regular schools. I hope every one of you gets to experience such an event someday. We had no need of long explanations or indoctrination. All it took was to introduce the topic in a sensitive way, appropriately moderate the ensuing debate, and the Roma convinced one another of the need to educate their children. However, such activities must be conducted by the Roma themselves, as they better understand one another.
I presume no one here questions the assumption that we, the Roma, should want to see our children become successful business people, lawyers, politicians. For this to be possible, however, we need to live in a tolerant society.
Recently I noticed that a dangerous, truly populist idea has been proposed: Conditioning the disbursal of welfare benefits on children’s school attendance. Do we really believe welfare expenditure in this country is so high that we should interfere with families with children this way? What are those who proposed this idea after, what ill are they trying to treat here? Wouldn’t it be better if the authority figures I spoke of earlier oversaw school attendance, in cooperation with social workers?
A greater number of Romani assistants should be employed by regular and special educational schools, and psychologists should visit the schools as well. They should work where they are needed – with parents, pupils, and teachers. The average class size in the regular schools where most of our children are educated should be reduced. Cooperation between school directors, teachers, teaching assistants and social workers should function better than it does. Many social workers unfortunately do not visit Romani families to see whether the children are growing and thriving.
Time constraints do not permit me to continue, and therefore in conclusion I will permit myself just one wish. I wish the main evaluation criterion and result of projects targeting the education of Romani chidren would be an adequate increase in the number of Romani children being educated in regular, unsegregated classes. When we review the situation in two or three years, I hope we do not discover that most of the financing allocated for this issue has been swallowed up by research. There is a need for the flow of money from the EU to be directed above all directly into the field where it is most needed. That funding is not endless. No one knows how municipalities, regions or the state itself will behave in the future on this issue. The sustainability of the changes begun today will depend on authorities at all levels.
Thank you for your attention.
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