Europe's Highest Court Finds Racial Discrimination in Czech Schools

STRASBOURG, France—In a momentous decision for minorities across Europe, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, by a vote of 13 to 4, ruled today that segregating Roma students into special schools is a form of unlawful discrimination that violates fundamental human rights.

The ruling came in D.H. and Others v. the Czech Republic, a case in which 18 Roma children sought legal redress for the practice—widespread in Central and Eastern Europe—of shunting Roma students into “special” schools for children with learning disabilities.

“The court has made clear that racial discrimination has no place in 21st century Europe,” said James A. Goldston, counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. “Roma children must have the same access to quality education as everyone else.”

The decision is the culmination of an eight-year legal battle during which the plaintiffs challenged the practice of forcing Roma students—regardless of their intellectual abilities—into schools for children with learning disabilities. Research by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) showed that Roma students were 27 times more likely than similarly situated non-Roma to be placed in special schools.

“This is a major step forward in Europe’s fight against discrimination,” said Vera Egenberger, executive director of the ERRC, which supported the plaintiffs in the case. “It is now unlawful for Roma students to be forced into substandard schools.”

The Court found that the practice of racial segregation in education violated Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination, taken together with Article 2 of Protocol 1, which secures the right to education. The Court noted that the Czech Republic is not alone in this practice and that discriminatory barriers to education for Roma children are present in a number of European countries.

Representatives of the victorious plaintiffs vowed to focus on ensuring the ruling is implemented quickly and fully. “We look forward to working with the Czech authorities to guarantee that this decision leads to better education opportunities for all children,” said Egenberger.

This case originated with the unsuccessful filing of complaints in the Czech courts in 1999 on behalf of eighteen children represented by the ERRC and local attorneys. In 2000, the applicants turned to the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that their assignment to “special schools” for children with learning disabilities contravened the European Convention. Tests used to assess the children’s mental ability were culturally biased against Czech Roma, and placement procedures allowed for the influence of racial prejudice on the part of educational authorities.

Evidence before the Court, based on ERRC research in the city of Ostrava, demonstrated that school selection processes frequently discriminate on the basis of race:

  • Over half of the Romani child population is educated in remedial special schools.
  • Over half of the population of remedial special schools is Romani.
  • Any randomly chosen Romani child is more than 27 times more likely to be placed in schools for the learning disabled than a similarly situated non-Romani child.
  • Even where Romani children manage to avoid the trap of placement in remedial special schooling, they are most often schooled in substandard and predominantly Romani urban schools.

Racial segregation in education remains widespread throughout the Czech Republic and in neighbouring countries. ERRC field research in five countries has consistently documented the separate and discriminatory education of Roma, as well as additional practices by educational authorities that result in the segregation of Roma in schools.

An ERRC report describes the most common practices of segregating Romani children in education based on their ethnicity. These includes segregation in so-called "special schools" for children with developmental disabilities, segregation in Romani ghetto schools, segregation in all-Romani classes, denial of Romani enrolment in mainstream schools, as well as other phenomena. Whatever the particular form of separate schooling, the quality of education provided to Roma is invariably inferior to the mainstream educational standards in each country.

More information on the case is available on the European Roma Rights Center and Open Society Justice Initiative websites.