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September 20, 2021



Commentary: The local dispute over "counting Roma"

11.11.2016 8:03
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A very typical dispute about the "counting of Romani children" has exploded in the Czech towns of Krásná Lípa and Rumburk. Local media distortions are a part of it.

"The ombudswoman's order: Schools in Děčín area must count Roma" was the headline of articles in the local edition of the online daily Dení Given the unclear nature of the article, the Česká škola (Czech School) news server turned to the Office of the Public Defender of Rights with questions and learned that current ombudswoman Anna Šabatová has issued no such "order".

What is more essential, however, is the exemplary resistance being shown by the mayors of these towns to "counting Roma". The question is how and whether it is possible to use information about the number of Romani children in a school in a meaningful way.

Mayoral enlightenment

Dení quotes both the Mayor of Krásná Lípa, Jan Kolář, and the Mayor of Rumburk, Jaroslav Sykáček. The quote from the Mayor of Rumburk is: "We will not count anybody according to ethnicity, we don't have time for that kind of thing."

This mayor opposes the Education Ministry's instructions on the criteria for identifying Romani people, describing those instructions as follows:  "If I agree with a significant number of those around you that you are a Swahili, then I turn you into a Swahili." Mayor Kolář of  Krásná Lípa takes a similar view of the issue:  "It's not possible for us to establish who is and who is not Romani. I know a boy from a Romani family who is blond. Does that mean he isn't Romani?"

Naturally, it is possible to discuss this "Romani child count" and the meaning of the entire project, and such discussion is absolutely legitimate. Doubts as to whether the criteria used to "identify a Romani pupil" have been well-chosen are also legitimate.

Štěpán Drahokoupil of the Open Society Foundation Prague has commented on this on the Czech School website and an intensive discussion has been taking place recently beneath several of the pieces published there, while other information can be found, for example, in the analysis published by the previous ombudsman, Pavel Varvařovský. Nevertheless, both of the mayors quoted above are a typical example of those who actually do not want to discuss this issue at all.

These politicians are simply rejecting the entire project on the basis of an absurd distorition of what they are being asked to do. They do not intend to discuss it further.

Story of the school in Krásná Lípa

Even the very best efforts always founder when faced with a vicious circle. Some parents accused the school in Krásná Lípa of segregating Romani children at the beginning of the 2015/2016 school year.

The school opened three first-grade classes, one of which was all but exclusively Romani. School principal Ivana Preyová justified the segregation by saying different groups of children had been variously prepared for the start of their school attendance.

The principal said the criteria for assigning children to the different classes was not, under any circumstances, their ethnicity, but whether the child had attended nursery school and how the child had done during enrollment tests. The story of the school there is apparently complicated, and among reasonable "advocates of the Roma" the criticism of the school is sparking more puzzlement and questions than any appetite for a rapid sentence to brought against it.

The school previously had the reputation of an institution that was making a sincere effort to integrate children and take an inclusive, not a segregating, approach. It may have been exactly that effort not to separate Romani children from everybody else that generated pressure on the principal.

That pressure was indicated by the very first reportage about the segregated first-grade classes that was broadcast in August 2015 by Czech Radio. "In recent years the school has been grappling with low enrollment. Parents who prefer to enroll their children at the school in Rumburk were the reason," that report stated.

This quote from Preyová was also part of that reporting:  "Basically 20 % of the children in the incoming class had never attended preschool. We had to set up the beginning of instruction so they would all have the same starting line. The parents of the faster children, who had attended preschool, preferred to begin their educations in Rumburk as a result."

What can the principal do in such a situation - what must she do? If she insists on her original approach, then it can happen that the "faster" children will gradually all leave and the result of her efforts at inclusion will be a segregated school.

If she at least partially "segregates" the children inside the school, then she will be confronted by her own documents and plans and will have to count on the segregation being noticed not just by nonprofits and parents, but also by the Czech School Inspection Authority, the Education Ministry and the ombudswoman. She may even be "segregating" with the best intentions - so that she can at least partially preserve the school as one where the children are still together somehow.

It's difficult to say what is really going on. In any event, this looks like a vicious circle.

How information from the "Roma head count" is used

The ombudswoman has asked the Mayor of Rumburk to answer several questions. Yes, one of them is how many Romani children attend the schools in Rumburk, but she naturally does not want a new, special "head count" to be done for her office, nor does she have the powers to ask the mayor to do that.

What she is actually seeking is the information from the head count that was done last year. "The investigation is not yet complete, so it is not possible to share details. The Public Defender of Rights is ascertaining, for example, the numbers of pupils who transferred into the schools in Rumburk in recent years, whether those transfers have had an impact on the schools and if so, what kind  - for example, did they influence the necessity to expand the capacity of the schools in Rumburk, the number of Romani pupils in the schools in Rumburk, etc.," a spokesperson for the Office of the Public Defender of Rights, Iva Hrazdílková, told Czech School.

The ombudswoman wants to acquire more detailed information about what has been long spoken of, and not just in these two towns:  Some parents do not want their children to be held back by being instructed together with "slower" children (most frequently, ones who are Romani). They therefore prefer to enroll their children into the schools in Rumburk.

This means that in Krásná Lípa what is gradually and unavoidably being created is a segregated "Romani" school. Šabatová naturally has no powers to forbid parents from wanting an appropriate school for their children and enrolling their children there.

Such powers are not held - fortunately! - by anybody but parents. Of course, that does not mean that it does not make sense to do our best to find out, if possible, as much information as we can to answer the following questions, namely:  Is a segregated Romani school in the process of being created nowm and if so, why (else) is that the case?

Can - and should - anything be done about this? These questions probably do not seem essential to the mayor, for example.

It is possible, after all, that some blond children will still attend the Krásná Lípa school as well. A more serious view of the following questions is, nevertheless, certainly possible, and it is very likely that such a view would be more useful:

1) Is this school segregated because it is "Romani", or because "slower" children are there?

2) Is it good for the "slower" children, perhaps those who are "neglected" in their own families, to attend "special" classes and schools?

3) It is possible that a relatively high number of the Romani children will be "neglected" - but isn't the opposite view also possible, namely, that a significant part of the Czech population views a Romani child as a priori "neglected"?

4) Should the state (the Regional Authority or municipality) attempt to somehow regulate or restrict the creation of segregated schools, and how?

5) Does it make sense to play with "inclusion", where children with various disabilities are supposed to meet the non-disabled in a "mainstream school", if at the same time other "mainstream segregated schools" will be an outgrowth of these efforts?

The information to be provided by the "Romani child count" will naturally be of only partial significance to clarifying these questions. I agree with those who criticize the "head count" that a more or less qualified, simple estimate of the number of Romani children in the schools and its reporting to the Council of Europe does not make a lot of sense in and of itself.

That, however, is still no reason to absolutely refuse such a "head count". Those who reject such a count across the board seem to do so on the assumption that those who have advocated for and authored such a project are just suckers who are unaware of what the elementary objections to it are, and who do not want to work with the information in the context of other questions and research.

Those opposed to counting the Romani children have taken their partners in this discussion for fools and are continuing to communicate with them on that basis. It is not a good one for a productive discussion.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Czech School (Česká škola) internet portal.

Michal Komárek, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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