By Michaela Terenzani
From The Slovak Spectator
A special class for children coming from a Roma community or even a separate school building that only has classrooms for Roma students: These are two very specific examples of what international human rights organizations call segregated education in Slovakia, a problem they say Roma pupils face in many parts of the country.
Two recent reports state Roma students in some primary and secondary schools in Slovakia face segregation. Of these, one report is based on joint research conducted by the European Union and a United Nations agency, and the other by Amnesty International (AI), a global NGO.
Slovakia’s Education Ministry, however, rejected the substance of both reports, denying the existence of Roma segregation in schools, and said the ministry has sought to prevent conduct of the kind described.
Slovakia ranked among the worst of 11 EU countries in educating young Roma, according to a report on the status of Roma published jointly by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The report states less than 20 percent of Roma under the age of 24 living in Slovakia have graduated from secondary school, compared with almost 90 percent of their non-Roma peers.
The report also found the status of Roma citizens in the areas of employment, education, housing and health, on average, is worse than non-Roma living in proximity, based on surveys of Roma and non-Roma sharing similar community infrastructure and labor market conditions.
The surveys involved 22,203 Roma and non-Roma families living in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain, who provided information on a total of 84,287 household members.
“Roma continue to experience discrimination and are not sufficiently aware of their rights guaranteed by EU law,” the report states.
Michail Beis, an FRA expert on Roma issues, said education is particularly in need of improvement.
“Otherwise, we’re excluding another generation of Roma youth who are stuck in a vicious circle of poverty, exclusion and discrimination,” Beis stated in the report.
AI, meanwhile, criticized the poor access of Roma students in Slovakia to an equal education in its 2012 Annual Report on the state of human rights across the world.
“Roma continued to experience discrimination in access to education, health care and housing,” states the section of the report devoted to Slovakia.
The AI report also addressed lawsuits that were initiated by Roma women in Slovakia because of forced sterilizations, as well as the low rights of Roma living in segregated settlements, devoting special attention to the right to education. The report noted several international organizations, particularly the UN Human Rights Committee, the European Commission and the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights have called for the Slovak government to adopt a strategy to assure Roma children are not segregated into separate schools or classes.
AI wrote about a situation in September 2011 when Roma parents learned the headmaster at a primary school in the town of Levoča, east Slovakia, decided to have separate classes for Roma children in the first grade, reportedly at the request of parents of non-Roma children who had “submitted a petition calling for a restriction on the number of children coming from ‘antisocial’ communities.”
“The school’s director stated the classes were intended to create a suitable educational environment for the Roma children,” the AI report stated.
The mayor of Levoča, Miroslav Vilkovský, disagreed with the substance of the report and said AI “should stick with facts and be more objective rather than appealing to emotion, pseudo-arguments and demagogy,” the SITA newswire reported.
Vilkovský added a one-sided picture of Roma children as innocent victims of discrimination and segregation only spreads prejudice and hatred.
The Roma children in the classes AI labeled as segregated came from a socially disadvantaged environment. According to Slovakia’s law on schools, these children have special educational needs, Vilkovský told SITA, adding that because these children had not received preschool education, the school had designed an individual educational program for them that also included a teaching assistant.
Vilkovský added such a program does not contravene any Slovak or international human rights standards.
The Education Ministry also expressed objections to the AI report, stating it was “spreading generalizing conclusions that the government’s policy and the school system in Slovakia segregate Roma children in elementary schools,” Michal Kaliňák, the ministry’s spokesman, told The Slovak Spectator, adding the country’s Schools Act specifically forbids all forms of discrimination and particularly segregation.
While the law does not require specialized classes for children from socially disadvantaged environments, Kaliňák said it was the duty of principals to create individual conditions for children from these communities.
The spokesman said the ministry “systematically and intensively deals with reported claims of segregated schools or classes” and acts to prevent them as well.
Another often-cited issue regarding Roma children’s right to adequate and equal education is their placement into special schools for mentally disabled children, even if it has not been shown that they actually suffer a mental disorder. Martina Mazúrová, head of the AI office in Slovakia, said 65 percent of all students enrolled in special education schools are Roma, while the overall proportion of Roma in Slovakia is only about 10 percent of the population, SITA reported.
Although Education Minister Dušan Čaplovič said he supports fully integrated primary schools, he reportedly supported placing Roma children in boarding schools when he held the post of deputy prime minister for minorities from 2006 to 2010, an idea that provoked much criticism from several nongovernmental organizations and human rights activists.