8 April, 2014

Left out of education – Roma children

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Category: Discrimination, European Action Day, Guest writer, National campaigns, Roma
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New building, desks for Sir Asyab Girls High SchoolBy Greta Rutkevičiūtė, Avelina Markevičiūtė, Jolanta Stasilo


Education, provided at schools for children with special intellectual needs, in most cases closes all doors for future perspectives, however, for many children such schools had become the only place for some sort of education. Economic conditions of their parents, illiteracy and public apathy allow this problem to continue flourish in Lithuania.

Vilma from Žagarė has finished only two classes of school. Three sons of hers had been studying at the school for children with special intellectual needs, as they got all teaching material and care for free there.

‘At first my children went to an ordinary school with other children, but harder times came, the financial crisis hit and their education became very costly. I had to buy everything, even slippers and I didn’t have much money. This was when I decided to sign them up to a so-called support school,‘ tells Vilma.

Having been successfuly studying for a couple of years already, Vilma’s children had to go to a boarding school for children with special needs by her own asking.

‘I have asked for it myself. They really didn’t want to admit my sons, but I begged them, because I didn’t have any means to provide for their education,‘ admits the mother.

Roma people living in Žagarė don‘t hide that sometimes teachers from the boarding school for children with special needs come to families who have school-aged children and kindly ask if the family wants to sign up their children to the special school in order to have an easier life and some perks that come when one is attending the school. There’s no need to look for reasons of such ‘sweet-talk‘ very far – special schools, as every other school in Lithuania, are financed according to the number of students it has.

According to Neringa Jurčiukonytė, the director at the National Institute for Social Integration, Vilma‘s situation is a perfect example of how institutions pre-treat the Roma group. ‘If this was a case of any other social group, none of the commissions would have allowed such situation to evolve. Theory is proved by not such unuasual similar cases in high schools, where teachers just ditch Roma students and don’t even give them homework to do. Children then surprise social workers by asking what is it they should do differently so that teachers acted differently with them,‘ says human rights activist.

At schools for children with special intelectual needs, together with education, pupils also receive social support: accomodation, food, sometimes – educational material, clothes and medicine. At such schools Roma studnets have lower requirement as they usually have minimal standards of education set for them – only the ability to write and read.

Audrius Kaluginas, a clinical psychologist, says that the harm done when a  healthy child is studying according to the special program, is inevitable. ‘Of course, it has a big impact. If you had to be in such enviromenment for a long time, there are two possible ways of outcome – either you accept their position and become nuts, or you, in all possible ways, try to detach yourself and leave the squad,‘ says Kaluginas.

It is unclear how many Roma parents decided to follow Vilma’s behavior. Seven Roma children where studying at special boarding schools in Lithuania in 2001, four years after there were 75 of them and the number keeps growing.

Angelė Karėčkienė, the Director of Žagarė School for Children with Special Needs is sure that only children with serious intelectual disabilities are admitted to the school. The status of a child with special needs is determined the by pedagogical-psichological commission before a child leaves kindergarten and has to go to school. Sometimes, if disorders are clear, even earlier.

The director says that earlier the psychological commision for children didn’t have a perfect metodology to determine such disorders, therefore, often a healthy child that didin‘t have social skills, was determined as having intelectual disorders. A couple of years ago the metodology has changed, and, according to the director, now functions without mistakes.

Independent psychiatrists and social educators say that there’s no big differnce between the diagnosis of a ‘mild intelectual disorder‘ and normal development. Parents, who don’t care if their children had a diploma of higher education, agree with the diagnosis of mild intelectual disorder in order their children were accepted to schools for children with special needs. For example, in Žagarė only one Roma is studying at a gymnasium, in comparison to more then ten Roma children struggling to get their education at special schools.

Božena Karvelienė, the head of the Roma Integration House agreees that most of Roma parents act as Vilma did. Pedagogically neglected, lacking social skills and having a lot of cultural differences in comparison to other children, Roma children are mistakenly determined as having intelectual disabilities or, if they go to ordinary schools, they are not takent seriously – Roma children don’t get homework and study according to programs that are not tailored to their level of education.

The percentage of Roma that are illitarate or have not finished elementary school is way higher than in any other ethnic minority in Lithuania. More then 2000 Roma live in the country, but only 26 of them have higher education. The main reason is the upbringing of Roma. Parents, whose parents didn’t encourage their education, act the same with their children – the vicious circle is turning and will be turning until it’s stopped.

However, lawyer Birutė Sabatauskaitė advices not to forget that ‘a child is not a thing where parents can just decide things for him.’ If such order existed, she says, parents could tell others that ’we have decided that our five-year-old has to go work’. ‘It is obvious that the state has to intervene, as the child is the most vulnerable here. This is why the state protection system exists – if parents decide inappropriately, they are subjected to either social or criminal means. Therefore, there are juvenile inspectors and special commissions are created to evaluate the behavior of parents.  Municipalities, schools and police have to take action as well,‘ says the lawyer.

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