Slovak first-instance court rules that Romani children were unlawfully assigned to "special needs" classes
Last month the District Court in Prešov, Slovakia agreed with an antidiscrimination lawsuit brought by three Romani children from the Hermanovce municipality claiming they were unlawfully assigned to be educated in a local school within special education classes for children with mild mental disadvantages. According to the court, the defendants, a privately-run Center for Special Pedagogical Counseling in Prešov, which performed the psychological diagnosis of the children, and the Hermanovce Primary School, discriminated against the children on ethnic grounds.
The court ordered the defendants to apologize to the children and awarded each child compensation of EUR 5 000. As of 23 December the verdict had yet to take effect and could still be appealed.
"This court decision is the first in history to find in favor of Romani children who have been illegally educated in Slovakia's special education system. Finally, a Slovak court has sent the clear signal that the excessive number of Romani children in special schools and classes is a serious societal problem that we cannot ignore. This court has thus joined courts from Hungary and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which have also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in similar cases in the past," said the lawyer who filed the lawsuit in cooperation with the Center for Civil and Human Rights (Poradna pre občianske a ľudské práva) in 2016.
In the lawsuit, plaintiffs argued that due to the insufficient psychological diagnoses produced by the privately-run Center for Special Pedagogical Counseling in Prešov, they had been illegally educated in special needs classes. The psychological rediagnostics that the children completed with an independent psychologist at their parents' request did not confirm any mental disadvantage.
The lawsuit also targeted the local primary school. The plaintiffs argued that their school, contrary to the law, was educating them according to the educational plan for children with mild mental disabilities and, moreover, segregated them spatially - educating them not in the main school building, but separately from all the other children.
The lawsuit also pointed to the alarming fact that at the time of its submission in the 2015/2016 school year, the vast majority of the Romani children living in the adjacent community of Roma segregated from the rest of the village, whom the school is required by law to accept, were also being educated in special classes for children with mental disabilities. The lawsuit also emphasized the responsibility of the state for the given situation, which is why it was also directed against the Education Ministry.
The court agreed with the plaintiffs to a substantial extent. It ruled that the Center for Special Pedagogical Counseling in Prešov had discriminated against the Romani children in their access to education on the grounds of their Romani ethnicity.
According to the court, the disproportionately high overall proportion of Romani children being educated in special classes at the Hermanovce school indicates many such diagnostic errors by the psychologists. The court ruling states that the primary school, too, discriminated against the children who have been harmed and, according to the court, has long ignored the fact that a large number of Romani children have been assigned to special classes and has never taken any remedial action in response to that fact, for example, by sending them to a different testing center for a second opinion.
In addition, the court confirmed the school's responsibility for spatially segregating the Romani children into special classes not held in the main school building and attended exclusively by Romani children. "The court ruled fairly. I believe that thanks to this decision there will be a change in other schools and Romani children will get a chance to receive a good education. We all need that for life, because without a good education we Roma have no chance to get a good job," said Sebastián Červeňák, one of the plaintiffs.
"I want everyone to know how they treat the Roma in our community. Almost all Romani children go to the special school. That's wrong. They have to take us as equals so that we, too have a chance to accomplish something in life," another plaintiff added.
In their application, the plaintiffs emphasized the state's responsibility for their discrimination and pointed out that the state had not taken effective measures to prevent their discriminatory education in such special needs classes. However, the court did not agree with those arguments and dismissed the lawsuit in that part.
"It is important that a Slovak court, too, has finally acknowledged the responsibility of the school and the psychological counseling center for the illegal situation at this particular school. However, it is also necessary to state the responsibility of the state for specific errors in this area. Effective measures by state institutions, especially the Education Ministry, are key to achieving change. That is why we are appealing against the part of the judgment where the court rejected our action against the state," said the lawyer.
"Many Romani children have been and continue to be educated in special schools and classes illegally. Although the Education Ministry perceives this problem, and the need to address it appears in government documents today, real systemic effort to bring about change is still not visible. I am convinced that psychological diagnosis in the schools should be used primarily to determine children's individual educational needs and they should be educated together with all the other children in an inclusive school environment. The center should not move children into special schools and classes. State institutions must act urgently in this direction, "said Štefan Ivanco, the program coordinator of the Counseling Center for Civil and Human Rights.
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