Czech principal says politicians forgot about her school after death threats were made against it last year
"A class full of terrorists", " 'Gas Mains Street' School - the solution's right there", or "A grenade would fit right in their like another butt on the seat!" One year has passed since hundreds of hateful commentaries like this were posted in response to the publication of the photograph of a first-grade class at a primary school in Teplice, Czech Republic.
Last November the class featuring children of Arab, Romani and Vietnamese origin became a target of cyber-bullying after its class photo was published as part of the local daily paper's series on first grade classes, "My First Tableau". "The first news of what was happening came to me from a colleague during a training in Prague. My next phone call came from you and at that moment I still did not suspect what would follow," Marcela Prokůpková, the principal at the Prosetice Primary School, recalled last year's events to the Czech Government's Hate Free Culture project.
"To be honest, I do not much want to recall those events," the principal admits. She remembers high media interest - and little interest from politicians.
"The situation was belittled back then, the fact that politicians did not make clear, immediate statements about this scandal did not much aid with how it was handled," the principal believes. During the year that followed, the children were exposed not just to a wave of hate, but also received a great deal of support from individuals and entire organizations.
The police, in the meantime, investigated the hateful online commentaries, and a 26-year-old woman was eventually convicted of felony incitement to hatred of a group or restriction of its rights and freedoms. "I certainly would never wish something similar to happen to the authors of those hateful commentaries and reactions if their children were somehow different. Maybe today some of them regret doing so, although that's not likely. I do not believe that each of them will be prosecuted, but at least it can be seen that this behavior cannot happen with total impunity," the principal said.
Q: When did you first learn of the wave of hatred sparked by the photograph of your school's first-graders?
A: The first news of what was happening came to me from a colleague during a training in Prague. My next phone call came from you [Hate Free] and at that moment I still did not suspect what would follow and how it would affect the life of the school as well as my personal and professional life. To be honest, I do not much want to recall those events, above all the media interest, the great personal responsibility that I felt for the pupils and the staff, and the minimum of experience I had with this absolutely new situation of hateful commentaries targeting young children who were unable to defend themselves, the danger of the online social networks and many other things.
Q: When you look back at this scandal, do you see anything positive about it?
A: I believe that during those demanding moments I got to know who people are. It became clearer to me from whom I could anticipate aid and who was not going to be helpful. Eventually I realized that one must advise oneself, assist oneself. Then I knew to whom to turn, with whom to communicate, with whom to meet, but during those first moments it was difficult. On the other hand, I was surprised by the expressions of solidarity and support from many people, all of whom, save for a few exceptions, live elsewhere in the country, as well as by heir offers to help the school, those people expressed their civic position and their disagreement with the dissemination of hate. I recalled that just now, during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Czechoslovakia, during which we frequently heard calls from the highest state representatives for us to take an active approach toward developing civil society and expressing our civic positions. One year ago I would really have welcomed it if those who have been making such remarks would have set an example themselves.
Q: Do you have the feeling that the children and your school were forgotten about even when the scandal was fresh?
A: Yes, I believe we were forgotten. During those first moments I anticipated politicians expressing support for our school, and they certainly should have expressed support. I know what the situation was, the elections had just ended, but I expected politicians to respond faster. Then they gradually expressed their views in the media, but it was not the case that they directly, with a few exceptions, reached out to our school. The first one, several days into the crisis, to reach out through his press spokesperson was Education Minister Stanislav Štech. The situation was belittled back then, the fact that politicians did not make clear, immediate statements about this scandal did not much aid with how it was handled.
Q: After the scandal was publicized, many organizations and people offered aid and support to the school. What did the first-graders or other pupils at your school gain as a result?
A: Aid to the school was offered by many organizations and people. Among the first was the theatrical producer Štěpán Kubišta, who invited the children to attend a performance at a theater in the Holešovice market in Prague. The students from the ALT class at the Na Zatlance College Preparatory School in Prague prepared a Christmas program for the first-graders, the travel writer Dan Přibáň gave a talk to the children, and the ROMEA organization supported us by announcing a public collection from which the first-graders were given tablets and the others, for example, got their costs covered for extracurricular educational programs and transportation costs for school field trips. A financial collection was also organized by the businessperson Patrick Zandl. The leadership of the Faculty of Law at Charles University prepared a visit there for the children and a trip to the Zoo, and the Association of Youth Hiking Divisions offered to accommodate them at their facility in Sloup. The entrepreneur Mr Bílek made it possible for the first-graders and their parents to spend Christmas vacation at his facility free of charge. The CZ.NIC firm donated new equipment to the school's computer lab.
Q: Did the children know what was behind these events and trips organized directly for them?
A: In the beginning the teachers spoke about this with the parents, but the trip to Prague, for example, did not happen until June, so we didn't emphasize to them much that it was because of what had happened in November. The children probably didn't even get it, which is good. They knew lawyers from the Law Faculty had invited them, but we didn't much want them to connect it with November. As far as the June trip to Sloup, the parents knew that the children's accommodation was sponsored by the association and they knew why. However, we did not make a big deal of it to the children.
Q: Did you discuss or speak about what happened with the older pupils?
A: The homeroom teachers discussed it with their pupils, in the first few days I visited all of the classrooms, and the vice-principal also spoke with them about it. When different activities happened later on, we said they were gifts from sponsors. Immediately in November Mr Přibáň offered to do his presentation at the school, so the children knew why he had offered it and why all the other activities followed. The children also knew about the scandal from the media, and therefore they were perceiving that something was happening. During different appropriate occasions I reminded them during instruction, because I teach our civics subject, for example on the one year anniversary I recalled to them what had happened to the pupils.
Q: What was their reaction? How did the older pupils in particular respond?
A: The older children were not absolutely directly impacted by the scandal with the photograph, but they perceived the entire situation and followed it on social networks, where the reactions to it were absolutely different from the media reactions, and they discussed it among themselves in their spare time. However, I think they didn't live with it to such a degree that they were speaking about it for months.
Q: A 26-year-old woman has been sentenced for her hateful commentary about the children's photo. What is your view of the verdict? Do you have a feeling of satisfaction from it?
A: Before Supreme State Prosecutor Pavel Zeman got involved with the entire matter the information I received was that the Police of the Czech Republic had shelved the case. I inferred that he would be returning the case to the police from an interview he gave for public radio this summer. It must have needed the bravery of the Supreme State Prosecutor, who apparently acknowledged that the situation had already become such that something had to be done instead of just shelving these cases of hateful commentaries. I believe [the verdict] is correct. However, I certainly do not have a feeling of satisfaction, just the belief that justice still exists and that each person is liable for what he or she publishes through social networks.
Q: What do you have to say about the rather young age of the woman who has been convicted?
A: I noticed a survey among apprentices at the secondary vocational schools long before this photograph, and maybe even before the migration crisis had begun to be spoken of, and the result of that survey was that this segment of youth has racist opinions. I was not very shocked by the woman's age.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say to that woman or any of the other people who wrote hateful commentaries?
A: I certainly would never wish the authors of these hateful commentaries and reactions to ever experience something like this if their own children were somehow different. Maybe today some of them regret doing so, although that's not likely. I do not believe that each of them will be prosecuted, but at least it can be seen that this behavior cannot happen with total impunity.
Q: How did the children's parents react to this scandal?
A: The parents called us, they came to the school, asked us about it. For the parents of the first-graders last year we held a class meeting during which we were greatly aided by staffers from the In IUSTITIA organization, because I would not have been able answer some of the parents' questions satisfactorily, especially questions of a legal character. The parents were interested above all in how safe the school is, what other security steps would be undertaken, so we took further measures above and beyond those adopted after the incident in Žďár nad Sázavou [Editor's Note: A 26-year-old woman broke into a local high school there on 14 October 2014 and stabbed to death a 16-year-old student, Petr Vejvoda, who was defending a female schoolmate from the attack, and several other people were injured]. I believe no school is able to 100 % prevent somebody with bad intentions from breaking in despite various security measures. Naturally there will always be some doubts, but I think we did the maximum we could at that time. Nether the local police nor the state police were able to keep patrols by our school 24 hours a day. We had street patrols around the time the children arrived at school and then they were extended into the afternoon hours. Police monitored the school more frequently, but it's impossible to turn a school into a fortress.
Q: Did the composition of that specific class change during the year? For example, did some of the parents move their children to a different school under the influence of this scandal - not just parents of last year's first-graders?
A: The composition of that class was adjusted only minimally, and just because children moved away. There were pupils who left the school and transferred elsewhere over the year, but for other reasons than the influence of this scandal.
Q: Did the entire situation, the tense emotions, disrupt the relationships between the parents and the school?
A: I believe it did not. I do not have information of that being the case. The parents were afraid for their children, understandably, they did not want to allow them to come to school by themselves. However, I think that big fear gradually fell by the wayside and everything returned to normal.
First published on the Hate Free Culture server.
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