70% of all Roma children in the Czech Republic attend special remedial schools. Human rights advocates and Roma groups argue that it is a result of systematic discrimination in the Czech educational system. In 2000, the parents of eighteen Roma students who are now between the ages of 14-21, filed a complaint that their children were transferred to remedial schools as a result of their ethnicity. Their case was dismissed as the Czech courts found that legal procedures had not been violated. Now, these parents represented by the European Centre for Roma rights are taking the case to the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It will be another few months before it is decided whether the case will proceed or not. If it does, it will be the first of its kind in history.
Why are so many Roma children in remedial schools? David Murphy from Nova Skola, a foundation which promotes multiculturalism in the Czech school system, told me his views of the Czech school system:
"I think that the school system is inherently racist. I wouldn't say that it is a malicious racism, directed at specific minority group. I think it is more a product of a homogeneous society that is incapable of dealing with people who have different needs."
"One of the things that is important is to try and open up the school system more. I think there is a lot that the ministry of education is trying to do. I think it is a matter of using best practices that work in other societies. Really making the schools more inclusive and then less what I call Czechocentric."
Graficka Elementary is a charming little school in the inner city of Prague. Over half the students here are Roma. The school is unique in its student centred approach. Many so-called problematic children are transferred to the school and now thrive. I spoke to one such Roma student about her experiences in school before coming to Graficka elementary:
"The teachers there did not respect that we are Roma, they insulted us as they pleased, they did not care. My teacher treated me differently than she treated the other kids. She would insult me, she would say things like, go sit down, you don't know anything, there is no point."
"It was a horrible feeling. I felt ashamed in front of the kids and then when they hear it from the teachers and they treat you the same and the whole class judges you. It really isn't a good feeling."
In addition to the hostile environment that Roma students may encounter in the mainstream school system, the tests which are used to diagnose children for transfers to remedial schools can be problematic, David Murphy again:
"This is a very controversial point. The test is very culturally centric on Czech society. It doesn't take into consideration any of the specifics of any other culture and therefore right from the very beginning this tests discriminates people who did not grow up in the mainstream society."
David Murphy points out that sometimes Roma students entering the school system lack basic skills and that this is confused with a lack of scholastic aptitude:
"There are certainly cases when Roma students will enter the school system and they will not have the same background as a Czech student. Which means that in some cases, they do not hold the pen or pencil correctly, they have not been prepped for what is or is not acceptable behaviour in the school, how does the school work, what is expected of them."
"When they do not have this background information, it is easy for a teacher or psychologist to say, this student does not belong in this school because they do not have the basic skills that all the other students have. Rather than asking why doesn't he have these skills, it is easier to say, give him a test and we will put him in the special school system."
The principal and school psychologist at Graficka Elementary stressed that the academic difficulties that many of the Roma children in their school face could not be separated from socio-economic problems such as poor housing and unemployment that plague many of the families of their students. Moreover, many Roma parents are distrustful of Czech institutions in general. One Roma mother, whose six year old son is having serious academic difficulties, told me why she was so reluctant to have her son undergo a diagnostic test:
"I don't want it. I have bad experiences, I have been through it, I lived in an institution from the age of three to seventeen. What you say, they write it down, they diagnosis. If they want to know what is really wrong with a child, they should know the child from when they were small. To just come and do a diagnosis like that, I don't think that is right."
It is sometimes argued that education is not a priority for the Roma, I asked this boy's mother how she felt about her son's education:
"I think it nowadays it is incredibly important. He will be learning his entire life. If he is educated it will be better for him. He will be treated differently, he will read, write and talk differently, it really is different from someone who does not have an education. If he will be at school where he does not feel good then he will have trouble learning. Education is definitely important nowadays."
If the case of the eighteen Roma students is brought successfully to Strasbourg, the problems of the Czech school system will be investigated under the scrutiny of the European Union. During the first hearing, the Czech state will argue that all procedures for channelling the eighteen children into remedial schools were properly adhered to. The representatives of the students will focus their arguments on the educational system itself and what they call "quiet segregation." Meanwhile, it's another school day at Graficka Elementary. Regardless of what happens in Strasbourg, building trust seems to be at the heart of the issue. David Murphy:
"What it really comes down to is a lack of trust on both sides of the fence. That the majority population doesn't trust the Roma student to work hard and make something of himself and that the Roma student doesn't trust the white school system to look out for his best interests."