WASHINGTON – Members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission praised the courage of 18 Romani applicants from the Czech Republic who brought suit before the European Court on Human Rights alleging that their assignment to “special schools” for the mentally disabled violated European human rights law and was tainted by racial prejudice. This week, a 7-member chamber of the Court held the applicants failed to prove that their placement in “special schools” was the singular result of intentional racial discrimination.
“The 18 boys and girls who brought this case – some now young adults – have spent more than six years fighting for a vital principle, the equal right to education,” said Commission Chairman Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). “In doing so, they are championing a cause pursued by Roma across Europe. Their courage and perseverance is inspiring.”
During the Communist era, many East European countries developed a practice of channeling Roma into schools for children with mental disabilities, called “special schools.”
“In hearings before the Helsinki Commission, Romani witnesses have told us over and over again: equal access to education is essential if progress is to be made in addressing the full range of problems they face,” added Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ). “It is ironic that some people continue to cling to the pernicious stereotype that Romani culture is incompatible with education, at the very time when Roma are demanding equal access to education more loudly than ever.”
In connection with this suit, the Czech Government acknowledged that nationwide 75 percent of Roma were channeled into special schools. In some of these schools, Roma make up 80-90 percent of the student body. The government also acknowledged that “Roman[i] children with average or above-average intellect [we]re often placed in such schools” for children with mental disabilities.
Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Congressman Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) noted, “The decision of this Chamber of the European Court may be a set back for the plaintiffs, but I have no doubt that this case was instrumental in spurring the Czech Government to adopt several changes to its education laws in the past six years. Considering the shocking statistics, I hope the Czech Government will intensify its efforts to integrate Roma into mainstream schools and classrooms.”