Ministry in dock over racism against gypsies;Briefing;International

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Czech republic

Romany children are 15 times more likely to be transferred to schools for the mentally retarded. Nigel Glass reports

Romany rights campaigners have taken the Czech ministry of education to court, accusing it of widespread discrimination against gypsy children.

The European Roma Rights Centre has filed charges in the Czech Constitutional Court over alleged discrimination in the Ostrava region. It says schools are wrongly classifying many gypsies as mentally impaired. Campaigners claim gypsies in the Czech Republic are 15 times more likely than ethnic Czechs to be transferred to schools for the mentally retarded.

The problem is said to be particularly bad in the run-down industrial town of Ostrava. The centre alleges schools there refused to co-operate with its inquiry. Investigators from the centre claim school authorities refused to give statistics for Romany children on the grounds that keeping such figures would be racist.

According to the centre's lawyer, Bebbie Winterbourne, when investigators obtained power of attorney from the parents of some Romany children so they could look at school records, headteachers pressurised some parents into withdrawing their agreement.

Ms Winterbourne said: "The heads called in the parents and told them (our) lawyers could take their children away from them with such powers." She claimed the heads had forms cancelling the powers of attorney ready for the parents to sign. Some parents had backed down as a result.

The heads themselves are sometimes under extreme pressure to rid their schools of gypsies. Ostrava police are currently investigating an anonymous threat to bomb one school unless gypsies were excluded.

The ministry of education denies racism. "The problem is a lack of expertise not discrimination," said Jiri Pilar of the ministry's special education unit.

But the centre has challenged the way children are judged to be mentally impaired. The children are often tested when they are only five or six, and speak only a mixture of Czech and Romany. They are tested using a variety of tests, including one which expert advisers to the group have dismissed as "not scientifically sound" for the purpose.

Former student Roman Bandy told investigators he was the only gypsy in his class. He said teachers had suggested he and his brother, in another class, take the test. His mother found out and intervened to keep her sons in school regardless of the test results. He said: "I believe we only remained in school (because of) my mother's insistence."

Legal experts say the action may founder because Czech law does not permit actions on behalf of groups. But campaigners say if the Czech courts cannot help them, they will go to the European Court of Human Rights.

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