A Slovakian district court took a small yet significant step earlier this month toward eradicating structural barriers adversely affecting the country’s Roma minority.On January 3, the Presov District Court ruled that a primary school located in the village of Sarisske Michalany unfairly discriminated against Roma children by maintaining separate classrooms for Roma and non-Roma students. The school has 430 students, more than half of whom are Roma (the pejorative term for which is “Gypsies”).Amnesty International’s Barbara Cernusakova praised the court’s decision as a positive development for a minority routinely denied basic rights in countries across Central Europe: 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.Defending the school’s procedures, faculty and administration argued in court that separating classrooms by ethnicity permits teachers to give the unique attention desperately needed by Roma students. Margita Dorkova, a teacher at the school, remarked that segregation
…has been shown to be the right decision. It allows us to give the children individual attention and adjust the rate at which we cover subjects to suit their abilities… Children from [Roma] settlements often can’t speak Slovak, don’t even follow basic hygiene practices and their parents pay little attention to them. In a mixed class they would be condemned to failure.In nations such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary, Roma primarily live in settlements separated from the rest of society—an ethno-geographical arrangement that reinforces the group’s endemic poverty and isolation.Central European Roma have many obstacles that limit integration into their nations’ economy and culture. For instance, Roma children are 28 times more likely to be placed in special education programs than non-Roma children, relegating them to a lower educational track while fueling racial prejudices that Roma are mentally inferior.Many Central Europeans also associate Roma with violence and crime, a connotation derived primarily from xenophobic rhetoric used by the region’s increasingly popular far-Right. For example, Bulgaria’s extremist political party Ataka (which translates literally to “attack”) recently called for a reinstatement of the death penalty in response to what it sees as an existential threat posed by the Roma mafia. Directors at the school in Sarisske Michalany provide a subtler example of how violence is commonly associated with Roma; according to school administrators, desegregation would require that teachers act as “bodyguards” in order to protect students from aggressive and misbehaving Roma.Whether current prejudices grow or recede is hard to guess. Numerous organizations and human rights groups are pushing for greater governmental effort to enact inclusive polices that would help generate a more equal society. Groups such as George Soros’ Roma Initiative and the Advisory for Civil and Human Rights (which lobbied the Presov court to rule against segregation) have succeeded in drawing attention to the issue. Yet other indicators point to darker possibilities.The European Union recently threatened Hungary with economic sanctions for its rightward drift and its mistreatment of Roma. The threats have so far backfired, providing fuel for the country’s far-Right Jobbik party and producing a public outcry to succeed from the EU.European Roma—history’s oft-neglected minority—deserve proper and equitable treatment. Whether or not the political climate in Europe is conducive to providing it remains to be seen.
Patrick Glennon is a writer and musician living in Chicago. He received his B.A. in History from Skidmore College and currently works as Communications Manager for the Michael Forti for Cook County Court campaign and as the web intern at In These Times.