Attempts to integrate Gyöngyöspata school triggers outflow of non-Roma children

May 16, 2015

Translation of Ester Neuberger’s “Children are being rescued from their Roma classmates” published by abcug.hu on 12 May 2015.

The complete elimination of school segregation at Gyöngyöspata’s Demeter Nekcsei Elementary School seems impossible despite a court ordering an end to the separation of Roma and non-Roma children. The school headmaster responsible for introducing segregation in the first place managed to retain his job after the verdict.  He dismisses the accusations, the court case and its results as “lies”.  Meanwhile, the school’s survival is at risk as integration efforts trigger an outflow of non-Roma children.  Our report reveals how parents and children involved experience all this.

“The whole court procedure was a lie, why should I have done anything to comply with it?” this was the heated answer the school headmaster gave us when we asked what steps have been taken to prevent school segregation in the past six months as ordered by the court. We caught headmaster Károly Molnár at the gates of Demeter Nekcsei Elementary in the Northeastern village of Gyöngyöspata. We are here to learn what changed in the school since the second level court determined that the institution was racially segregated.

Students in the village are attending segregated classes since 2004 / Photo: András D. Hajdu
Students in the village are attending segregated classes since 2004 / Photo: András D. Hajdu

The lawsuit resulting in last October’s court decision was initiated in 2011 by the NGO CFCF – Chance for Children. This verdict obliged the sustainer and management of the school to put an end to the practice of segregating Roma children. This separation was realized in a way that two classes of Roma children attended “B” classes on the ground floor, while non-Roma children could use “A” classes and the first floor. During the court case the school administration’s defense was that due to the low number of students in the 2012-13 school year, they were only able to start with two new classes per grade, and therefore talking about segregation does not make any sense. According to Adel Kegye, attorney of the applicant CFC however, segregation has bee sustained in the school, although in various forms. The school segregation case in Gyöngyöspata received a significant media attention.  Since the verdict, however, nothing is known about what, if anything, changed afterwards.

Showcase reorganization

Tünde is a mother of seven living in Gyöngyöspata.  Her two daughters presently attend its Demeter Nekcsei Elementary School. “They said that my children have learning difficulties, and so they will put them in classes that learn the material slower. My question however is how the weakest students of the 5th-6th-7th graders could possibly benefit by simply being lumped together?”  Her question is more rhetoric than real. Many Roma students were simply classified as “students with special needs” by the school to create basis for their separation. As these special classes exclusively consisted of Roma students, they were physically separated from others in the school building as well.

Tibi, Letti and Fruzsina do not have a better time at school that Elizabeth had / Photo: András D. Hajdu
Tibi, Letti and Fruzsina do not have a better time at school that Elizabeth had / Photo: András D. Hajdu

Tünde’s daughters, Letti, who is a 6th grader, and Fruzsina, who is a 5th grader, were previously studying at the ground floor in the ‘special’ composite class of 5-6-7 graders.  They were able to start the current school year on the first floor in “normal classes.” Their mother, however, is not entirely happy about the developments, as her daughters still face an enormous lag in the curriculum. Letti, who is visibly shy, really had difficulties in various subjects.  Tünde believes that had she remained in an integrated class she could have caught up.  “It really shows how much further ahead her classmates are” she added.

“If there will be no Hungarians, there will be no school”

Tibor, who is a 7th grader also switched classes from last year.  He is currently attending a class of 16 along with five other Roma students, and that is already a relatively high proportion among the new, integrated classes. Although there is no official statistics about who is a Roma and who is not, local parents think that since the school was obliged to introduce integration, the problem just became more severe, as “Hungarian [colloquially meaning non-Roma] parents are constantly rescuing their children to other schools,” according to many, mainly to nearby Gyöngyös, where there is also an eight-grade gymnasium at their disposal. In that way, even if non Roma children would start school in Gyöngyöspata, after 4th grade the classes will shrink in size to 8-10 students. One of Fruzsina’s best friends was recently enrolled in another school from this autumn. According to the girl, the reason was that “they did not want their children to have too many Gypsies as classmates.” In the present situation, Tünde’s fear, that “If there will be no Hungarians, there will be no school” can sound realistic.

Roma children from Gyöngyöspata are assisted by volunteer special teachers in catching up. / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu
Roma children from Gyöngyöspata are assisted by volunteer special teachers in catching up. / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu

Neither Tünde, nor Anita, and none of the parents from Gyöngyöspata, were able to tell us the reason why their children have been moved to the first floor classes from last autumn. “They picked one of two kids from the group so that nobody could say anymore that all Gypsies are separated” – opines their 36-year-old mother. Of her three children, two are in the integrated or “mixed class.” Anita is skeptical whether these changes will be enough to alter the attitude of the teaching staff in a such a short time. “If her teacher can still call my 12-year old a whore in class any time, then I see this court verdict as useless!” the woman exclaimed. 

No suit, swimming suit, or bad conduct and you’re left out

Reviewing materials presented in the segregation court case reveal a number of other ways in which the school separated Roma and non-Roma children in everyday life.  For example, Roma children were not able to attend swimming classes in the pool just next to the school.  However, as the court did not find segregation in this case founded (together with accusations of segregation in catering or day care), many students are still not given the opportunity given their peers. Informant parents told us that this is simply because those children do not have swimming suits. “The school is supposed to acquire this equipment to those who do not have it” one of them opined. “It must be terrible for that unfortunate child to only watch the others from the side of the pool” she added.

It is not only swimming pool restrictions that remained in place- although in another form-even six months after the verdict. It appears that physical separation is still happening on school celebrations and in school breaks. “Bad students are not allowed to go to the courtyard to play, they are supposed to stay in the classroom” according to 7th grader Tibi. “And whoever did not have nice clothes could not take part in school festivities” 15-year-old Elizabet added, who left the school last year, and now is a baker apprentice in a vocational school. Even according to civil rights activists, legally proving about these occurrences that they are in fact segregation is extremely difficult, as it can be dismissed on the basis that this is simply “a punishment for bad behavior or for inappropriate clothes and has nothing to do with being Roma or non-Roma. The lack of equipment, or the employment situation of the parents also trigger different attitudes on the part of the school which, in practice, almost exclusively affects Roma children negatively.

“I would prefer to to go back”

 “I want to go back to my old class, I have nor friends in the new one” says Alex Mezei from the 5th grade, who accompanied us in the village during the afternoon. Alex is talking about “how Hungarians do not like Roma” in a completely natural way, and it seems like that this is a constant topic among the kids. Even when we pass the Catholic church Alex told us that “he never goes there, as Gypsies are not welcome.” In the city center he told us about not particularly liking this part of Gyöngyöspata. “Our neighborhood is better, as we can go out to the streets to play freely.  Here people would tell us off for that.”

Despite being clever, Alex will have a hard time enrolling in a good high school / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu
Despite being clever, Alex will have a hard time enrolling in a good high school / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu

In the company of the modest, very intelligently speaking boy we visit the house of his family at the outskirts of the city. Alex is living here with his mother, Edit, and with two siblings, Dani and Enikő in a relatively poor, yet neat home in the “Gipsy quarter.” His sister, Enikő is slightly mentally ill and is attending a special school in Gyöngyös, as well as Dani who is of the same age as Alex. However Dani is not in that school for the same reason as Enikő, as according to Edit, the special school was punishment for him because he beat up the son of Gyöngyöpata’s school headmaster, Károly Molnár.

In 2012, an examination declared that Dani is slightly mentally challenged, even though an earlier examination in 2007 found no mental problems at all.  Old enough to be a 6th grader, he had to start 2nd grade in the Gyöngyös school last year. Edit tried everything to arrange his return to the Gyöngyöspata school, as his mental capacities do not require special treatment, even attempting to sue the headmaster. To no avail, as Dani has not been accepted back to this day on that grounds that, due to his behavioral problems, his teachers cannot undertake the responsibility of teaching him. Edit thinks that the fact that “this figure was able to keep his seat as a school headmaster cannot mean anything other than there is no real intention to resolve the situation.” She added that this is not limited Dani’s case but pertains to the entire issue of segregation.

Edit and her children: Alex, Enikő and Dani, Dani fought with the son of the headmaster, as a revenge he ended up in special school / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu
Edit and her children: Alex, Enikő and Dani, Dani fought with the son of the headmaster, as a revenge he ended up in special school / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu

Because they had to…

A five minute walk from the school but lightyears from their understanding of education we can find the “Bokréta” Unified Pre-school and Nursery, praised by all Roma parents in Gyöngyöspata we asked.  The pre-school successfully introduced a Pedagogical Program for Integration (PPR – IPR) that was their own, 2009 initiative head kindergarten teacher – Márta Fodor told Abcúg in Gyöngyös. The point of the program is that participant institutions receive normative funding after socially handicapped children that they are able to spend in a number of ways as long as there is complete integration of the handicapped children with the others. From this framework the kindergarten organizes programs that are open to the first 4 grades of the school as well, explains Fodor who takes care to ensure the school and the kindergarten are not sealed off from each other.

A part of integrated education is that the kindergarten tries to involve parents in their work better. It is important for Roma parents to understand that it is good for their children if they grow up in a racially mixed environment. According to the Fodor, this is not always evident to all of them, and many of the local Roma do not support integration at all, as they are afraid that their children will get hurt. Parents also have a lack of confidence in teachers. As a head teacher, Fodor thinks it is a personal success that she and her colleagues have a good relationship both with Roma and non-Roma parents.

According to Márta Fodor, it is important that parents would not be afraid of integrating their children / Photo: András D. Hajdu
According to Márta Fodor, it is important that parents would not be afraid of integrating their children / Photo: András D. Hajdu

From this autumn, PPR will be introduced in the Nekcsei school as well, as Klebelsberg Institute Sustainment Center (KLIK) obliged the school management to do this. We enquired at the press office of KLIK about what certain steps have been taken to put an end to segregation. KLIK told Abcúg that the school in Gyöngyöspata had discontinued “special classes” as of 2013-14, and that teachers participated in a special course helping children’s integration in the frameworks of the PPR program. From the next school year daycare is also accessible for all students.

From the official answer it appears there is no state support for integration other than the PPR program to end segregation, as handicapped children can only access help from designated EU funds, or from contributions by private companies. The answer eventually reveals, that KLIK does not determine whether the school continues the practice of separating Roma children. According to them, the fact that a lack of children means only one first grade class can be initiated “rules out the opportunity of segregation per se.”

This report was made possible by the Careamic Foundation. Its volunteers are active in Gyöngyöspata since September 2014. They organize weekly pottery sessions for adults, and creative courses for children in the house of a local Roma family where we met most of our informants. Ceramic artists Éva Hámori and Pál Galicza told us that they aim to create a number of free time artisitc activities as “opportunities for handicapped Roma children in Gyöngyöspata are extremely narrow” and the children “are not able to access basic things that we usually take for granted in the case of our own kids” Hámor emphasized.

Careamic Foundation at work / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu
Careamic Foundation at work / Photo: Andras D. Hajdu