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EDITORIAL

When 'special' means segregation

DISTRESSING stories related to Roma communities with unemployment rates in excess of 90 percent begin well before encounters at labour offices where many Roma are told that there are no jobs for unqualified applicants, or for those with qualifications, that a non-Roma candidate would be preferred anyway. These stories often start on the day children from these marginalised communities are sent to special schools where they do not actually belong, while their parents are told by those who ‘classify’ them that these classes ‘for children with special needs’ are actually much better because they will be with other kids like them.

DISTRESSING stories related to Roma communities with unemployment rates in excess of 90 percent begin well before encounters at labour offices where many Roma are told that there are no jobs for unqualified applicants, or for those with qualifications, that a non-Roma candidate would be preferred anyway. These stories often start on the day children from these marginalised communities are sent to special schools where they do not actually belong, while their parents are told by those who ‘classify’ them that these classes ‘for children with special needs’ are actually much better because they will be with other kids like them.

Many of these marginalised children will never be able to get out of this trap and will continue living in settlements or ghettoes, while the non-Roma population continues to build walls to protect themselves from those they call ‘nonadjustable citizens’.

“It cannot be excluded that in some schools and localities children are subjected to unequal treatment based on their ethnicity as far as their access to education as well as how and in what conditions they are being educated,” wrote Jana Dubovcová, Slovakia’s ombudswoman, in a special report that she seeks to submit to the next parliamentary session, according to the SITA newswire.
The report, which is based on inquiries at 21 schools, also suggests that for children from special classes it is practically impossible to acquire a certificate of apprenticeship or a secondary school final exam, which fundamentally impacts their chances to access jobs and break out from poverty. Dubovcová assessed the situation as critical and she recommended to parliamentary deputies that they ensure access for students from special needs’ classes to all levels of education in Slovakia. Lawyers at her office said that the number of socially disadvantaged children of Roma origin is multiple times higher than the number of non-Roma kids.

Education and Roma rights professionals have been warning that once a Roma child is classified as someone in need of ‘special’ education there is only a very low chance that he or she would ever be reclassified and moved into regular classes. In many cases calling these classes ‘special’ is just a euphemism to avoid the use of the word that more precisely describes what it is: segregation. In fact, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International has been warning about schools where Roma children do not learn to read and write together with the non-Roma.

Last year, in a historic ruling, the Prešov Regional Court upheld a lower court, which ruled that an elementary school in Šarišské Michaľany violated principles of equal treatment and discriminated against Roma students by creating separate classrooms for children, located on separate floors, while dismissing the arguments by school officials that the children were not separated based on ethnicity, but rather that the division was based on kids that came from a socially-disadvantaged environment. The court ordered the school to place the children into regular classes.

Yet, the school director was disappointed by the ruling, according to SITA, and said it is possible that a school where one-third of the kids are non-Roma and two-thirds are Roma could turn into a fully Roma school.

Children who acquire education in schools where they know that there are separate classes for Roma on another floor will perhaps find it natural that the communities are building walls to prevent the Roma from crossing through neighbourhoods populated primarily by the non-Roma. They will continue assuring themselves that all of it – the segregated classrooms, the walls – happens for the sake of the Roma themselves and that if the Roma really want to they can become what they call ‘decent citizens’.

Perhaps they will also argue that the Roma themselves do not mind the walls and segregation, and perhaps the parents of the Roma children placed in the special classes, or the kids themselves, will not mind this approach, but it does not mean that in continuing with these practices society is not causing irreparable harm to itself. It is not nearly enough that someone with a conscience paints on one of these walls separating the Roma from the non-Roma a large inscription reading “Prepáčte”, meaning sorry, as happened with one such wall in Slovakia. Someone quickly removed the inscription, seeking to put it out of view, as others might like to do with segregation in schools.

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