The elementary school in the Slovak village of Sarisske Michalny in the Presov region must desegregate Roma classes as ordered by a court decision communicated earlier this month, Amnesty International and the Slovak non-governmental organization (NGO) Centre for Civil and Human Rights report.
In a landmark decision, the Presov District Court ruled on 5 December 2011 that the school had discriminated against Romani children by teaching them in separate classrooms without reasonable justification. The decision was delivered by the court on 3 January 2012.
“For the first time a domestic court in Slovakia has addressed the widespread and unlawful practice of segregated education of Romani children that affects the lives of thousands of children and traps them in a cycle of poverty and discrimination,” said Barbora Cernusakova, Amnesty International’s expert on Slovakia.
“Romani children in the elementary school in Sarisske Michalany are starting the new term in segregated classes but it must not be for long. The school must make immediate arrangements so that they can enjoy the same educational standards as other children within integrated classes," said Stefan Ivanco from the Centre for Civil and Human Rights.
For years the elementary school in Sarisske Michalany has organised separate mainstream classes on a different floor of the building attended exclusively by children of Roma ethnic origin. This situation was compounded in the school year 2008/2009 when the school transferred to the separate classes all the remaining Romani children who had previously attended integrated classes with other children from the majority population.
The proceedings against the school were initiated by the Center for Civil and Human Rights in June 2010. The Center argued that this segregated education of Romani children in separate classes constituted a serious form of unlawful discrimination based on their ethnic origin and a violation of their right to an education free from discrimination. Amnesty International submitted a written intervention in the case highlighting that the separation of Romani children in segregated Roma-only classes constitutes a violation of the right to equal treatment and the prohibition of discrimination under international law.
The Presov District Court rejected the school’s arguments that the education of Romani children from socially disadvantaged background in separate classes is the only means to provide equal quality of education for all pupils. The school had argued that the separate classes were set up to allow teachers to adopt a more individualised approach when teaching those children. However, the school failed to provide any evidence of the benefits for the Romani children of being taught in separate classes and that the measure was only temporary rather than long term.
Furthermore, drawing on a range of international and regional human rights standards including relevant judgments by the European Court of Human Rights, the District Court stated that the school practice of segregated education violates the country’s human rights obligations. The school is considering whether to appeal the District court decision.
"The school authorities must eliminate all forms of segregation and replace it with inclusive education. This may be a challenging task, but there is no alternative in order to fully realise the rights of all pupils in the school. We will be happy to assist the school in formulating and implementing an internal desegregation plan in line with the Court's decision," said Stefan Ivanco from the Centre for Civil and Human Rights.
"The implications of the Court’s decision go much further than the elementary school in Sarisske Michalany. It is a wake-up call for Slovak schools in general to adopt an inclusive approach based on the ethnic, cultural and social diversity of children. Inclusive education in a diverse environment teaches them to be friendly, tolerant, considerate and responsible in a society that is inherently diverse."
"All elementary schools must develop an individualised approach to teaching which does not unjustly exclude any child from mainstream education. National and local governments have to fully support them in line with their domestic and international legal obligations."
Amnesty International and the Center for Civil and Human Rights have been raising concerns over entrenched discrimination and segregation of Romani children in Slovak schools with the Slovak government for years. In September 2010, Amnesty International recommended a set of measures to be taken by the government in order to ensure the prohibition of segregation is enforced and put into practice.
“The Court’s ruling against segregation in education based on ethnic origin in one particular school must spur Slovak authorities into action. Following the resignation of the government in November 2011, all political parties that will form the new government following elections in March must pledge to eradicate the existing systemic discrimination and segregation within the school system in the country,” said Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International.
“Real change won’t happen without genuine political will. So far we have seen very little action from the Slovak authorities. Accountability for the elimination of discriminatory barriers and for the successful integration of Romani children into mainstream education lies with the Slovak government.,” she concluded.