Roma children systematically humiliated in Hungary’s segregated schools

March 14, 2018

Roma children systematically humiliated in Hungary's segregated schools
Photo: 168óra

“Segregation in schools is not a path toward prosperity. Children that come from these circumstances will remain on public aid, languish in public labor and in deep, hopeless poverty. It is difficult to estimate how many promising futures have been taken, how many children’s lives have been ruined forever in the past decades by the Hungarian state – and that includes flesh and blood municipal officials, mayors and educators.”

Translation of “The Gs are coming: Hungarian Roma children subjected to inconceivable humiliation” appearing on March 7th, 2018 in 168ora.hu.

After more than ten years, we still cannot know what kind of incredible injustice afflicted those Roma children that misfortune placed at the school in Sződ. Those children, now in their twenties and thirties and with families of their own, still speak with faltering voices about what happened to them. They say that they can’t get hired anywhere, that even machinery operators and workers on an assembly line must know how to read. They are demanding compensation for their ruined lives. The lawsuit is being re-tried.

“When we went to eat lunch, they would holler, ‘Here come the Gs!’, and the teachers would pull aside the non-Gypsy children to tell them they shouldn’t sit at the table with us.” We are at a court hearing. The first plaintiff, the nearly 30-year-old Attila Berki, is trying to recount how he spent his days in the second grade of primary school – at a segregated school.

Hungary has for decades been a prime offender in the educational segregation of Roma children, and the situation has deteriorated further since 2010 with drastic centralization and the expansion of church-run schools. Through this segregation, the state has caused irreparable harm to children educated in this manner, because segregation necessarily results in lower quality education where most students don’t learn to read, write and count. Upon leaving school, they are therefore unable to continue their studies or to find a place in the labor market.

We have essentially no idea how many humiliations these children go through. Their dramatic stories are only revealed through the occasional case which appears before a court.

We learned of the case of the children from Csörög after it was reported ten years ago, at the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year, that thirty Roma children had remained without a school. Csörög had no school of its own, and in neighboring Sződ, they did not want to take the gypsy children, claiming it was due to a lack of space.

In addition to the Educational Authority and ministry employees, the Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF) also joined in the effort to save the prospective first graders. Field workers for the CFCF, among them human rights activist Katalin Sztojka, spent a lot of time with the families before finding out what had been happening to those children who attended the Hunyadi János primary school in neighboring Sződ. (Sződ and Csörög are right next to each other, and to outsiders it would not even appear that they are two separate settlements. However, there are essentially no Roma families living in Sződ.)

According to statements from children and parents, the Roma children were separated from their non-Roma peers, and not taught according to their abilities. Several children were reported to have attended school before 2002 in the dilapidated old Communist party building and not in the building used for the school. When those children came over into the main building, they were placed into a segregated class there as well. Several Roma students completed their primary school studies under a private student status. It was also brought to light that for a while, Roma children had to attend school only three days per week, but not in the morning period, but in the afternoon between 1 and 3 o’clock. The Roma children were not only segregated from their non-Roma peers during class periods, but also during breaks, at lunch, and during school events.

Due to the serious discrimination affecting the Roma children of Csörög, in March of 2008 the CFCF filed a lawsuit with the Pest County Court against the Hunyadi János Primary School and the Sződ municipality on behalf of eight former students of the school for compensation for damages caused by the administrative authority. That was exactly ten years ago. The Hungarian state has been messing with these former students ever since, and they are now adults nearly in their mid-twenties with families of their own.

Ruined Lives

In order for us to demonstrate the significance of the greatly inferior education arising from segregation, we will quote from a recently published volume compiled by education research economists of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA). In the publication, titled The Indicator System of Public Education (2017), the economists examined the results of a national competence survey. (This survey is conducted every year in every school in the country by the Educational Authority, and measures mathematics and reading comprehension in sixth and tenth grade students.) “Students living under normal circumstances perform much better in both mathematics and reading comprehension than their peers who live in poverty. Tenth grade students (15-16 years old) living with multiple disadvantages perform worse than sixth grade students (11-12 years old) who live in normal circumstances. Segregation in schools is not a path toward prosperity. Children that come from these circumstances will remain on public aid, languish in public labor and in deep, hopeless poverty. It is difficult to estimate how many promising futures have been taken, how many children’s lives have been ruined forever in the past decades by the Hungarian state – and that includes flesh and blood municipal officials, mayors and educators.”

So what has happened in the last ten years? Following the lawsuit in 2008, a first level court ruled in 2012 that the eight students had certainly been discriminated against. The court ruled that the school had violated the requirement for equal treatment by placing the students in classes based on their ethnicity and by providing them an inferior level of education. The judge, however, issued only a partial decision and did not rule on compensation. (The eight plaintiffs asked for between HUF 1 million and HUF 1.4 million.) The ruling was based primarily on a letter which the school sent to the plaintiffs. In the letter, the school’s director wrote that if the plaintiffs would like to return to the school to study as adults, then the school would provide the opportunity. According to the judge, this letter was an admission that the school had not provided an adequate standard of education to the plaintiffs. However, the Budapest Court of Appeals sent the case back to a first level court, arguing that the letter alone was insufficient for establishing a legal basis, and that substantial questions had not been clarified. The case thus returned to the first level, to the same judge, Zsolt Horváth. This occurred in 2015, seven years after the lawsuit filed on behalf of those who had finished school in 2005-2006.

That’s when a lengthy back-and-forth, spattered with numerous professional conflicts, began between Adél Kegye, the lawyer for the foundation representing the plaintiffs, and the presiding judge. Adél Kegye submitted an objection to the judge over delays to the case and other complaints, and the objection was upheld. Finally, in 2017, a new lawsuit was filed at a first level court, and with a different judge. The first significant hearing in the new case was held last week when witnesses were interviewed. But now, the events must be reconstructed after the passage of nearly 20 years.
The first plaintiff, Attila Berki, is a family man with three children. The judge was particularly curious about how long he had attended kindergarten, whether he had undergone any examinations of his cognitive abilities, whether he’d seen an educational adviser, or whether he’d worked with a development teacher. (The defendants in the case, the school and the municipality that maintains it, both argue that the children were chosen to be separated not based on their ethnicity but on their cognitive abilities.) Attila found it difficult to describe what exactly happened to him when he was five and six years old. He remembered clearly, however, that when he entered first grade, he was placed in a mixed, Roma and non-Roma school group. He was, however, placed in the back of the room: as Attila tells it, “together with the other Roma at the dunce’s table.” Then, in the second grade, he was moved to a class where there were only Roma.

– Miss Csilla was the teacher in first grade, and Miss Ági in the second.

– Do you have any siblings?

– Yes. He went to a Roma class too. We were just Roma there – Attila responded to the judge’s questions.

He also remembers that their lessons would only begin in the afternoon when no one else was left in the school, only them. – It happened that the lesson started at 3pm, and by 5pm we were already home. They should be proud of that! I can’t even write my own name – the young man said, turning toward the lawyers representing the school and the municipality.

– I never in my life went back to the class where I started in the school. Whoever got into the Gypsy class, stayed there – he added.

This is all significant because, as it turned out, the Gypsy children were not separated from their peers on a temporary – so-called “remedial” – basis. (Remedial classes are a professional cliché: it is a pedagogical impossibility to reintegrate students from these groups.)

It was revealed from Attila Berki’s statements that students of all grade levels were packed into the Gypsy class.

– There were 7th graders, 4th graders, we all studied the same thing – he said.

It also turned out that the 1st through 3rd graders went to the small school next to the church, and from the 4th grade on, they studied in the dilapidated former Communist party building. For a short time, Roma children went to the so-called big school along with non-Roma children.

– I liked going to the big school. I had a Hungarian friend there. We only went to the party building in the afternoon. We even asked why we were going in the afternoon, but our teacher Mr. Misi couldn’t tell us – he said. When asked how that affected him, he said that he always felt that he wasn’t getting the same that the others were. The judge asked whether he had the feeling of being a minority because of this.

– I felt it, but I’ve overcome that. It was as if we’d been overlooked. We were oppressed. As crappy shitty Gypsy kids, we couldn’t prevail in school. But, well, that’s life. I trust that my children will never feel anything like that. When my daughter comes home from school and tells me about her day, I feel that she is welcomed differently at school. She’s in second grade now, and she writes nicer than me. Hungarians and Roma are all accustomed to each other in her school – he said. His daughter studies in an integrated school in Vác.

– What kind of results followed from this education? – the judge asked.

– They don’t want to hire me anywhere. Even machinery operators and workers on an assembly line must know how to read – he said.
Nikolett Lakatos went to the same school, and was interviewed as a witness by the judge.

– In first grade there were only us Gypsies in the party building. Then in 4th grade, after the parents got upset about that, they put me and another girl in a mixed class. But they sat us separately there too and said, “Do what you want.” We were like air, they looked right through us. They never called on us. And we just stared, like calves at a new gate – she said falteringly, adding that they were never taken on school programs or outings.
Nikolett Lakatos was forced to continue school as a private student after 7th grade because her parents were very ill. She looked after the household at 13 years old and cared for her sick parents. She received no help from the school to ensure her life circumstances wouldn’t disadvantage her education. Nikolett finished primary school at 16. When it was time to fill out her high school enrollment papers, her head teacher talked her out of it, saying, “You’re Gypsy, they won’t take you anywhere.” She tried to get a job after school, but her application at a factory was rejected because she was unable to fill out the required test sheet.

The lawyer representing the school asked why only the plaintiff wanted to hold the school responsible for her not knowing the Pythagorean theorem when she wasn’t even in class due to a lot of absences and her status as a private student. In answering a question from the judge, Nikolett Lakatos said that she buried her mother when she was 16 and her father when she was 17, but lacking family help or work, she was forced to survive off of dumpster diving.

The lawsuit will continue at the end of March with the testimony of other plaintiffs, former students of the school. After this many years, it is hard to see how these young people can get justice.