When he sees us arrive, Julek breaks into a wide smile and waves us towards his driveway. Rubbing his hands together to warm them against the autumn chill, he leads us up a concrete stairway to his second-floor apartment in the outskirts of Ostrava, an industrial town in eastern Czech Republic.
Julek, now 21, was one of 18 children who took the Czech government to the European Court of Human Rights in 1999, challenging the practice of placing disproportionate numbers of Romani children into “special schools” (now renamed “practical schools”) where they, and children with disabilities, were segregated from their classmates and taught a limited curriculum. Twelve years later, Julek still suffers from being caught up in the practice, painfully aware of the limited job options that his lack of education has left him.
Julek ushers us through the kitchen and into a neat, amber-colored living room, where his two young sons sit on small plastic chairs watching cartoons. In the corner, a small wood burning furnace crackles and warms the house.
His wife, Jitka, fixes us coffee and Julek begins to tell us of his experience. As a child, he had caught pneumonia and missed a lot of classes. Instead of getting support from teachers to catch up on his studies when he got well, he was placed into a special school. There he languished, until his headmaster finally recognized that he belonged in mainstream education. Once he was transferred back, however, the school placed him two grades behind his classmates of the same age. He did not last much longer in formal schooling.
As Julek talks, his four-year-old son, also named Julek, beams as he sits down next to me and proudly plants his prized pet mouse in my hand to hold and pat with him. Three-year-old Roland, leans against his father and happily slurps on a small lollipop that his grandmother hands him as she walks in to join us after finishing work.
Julek and the 17 other children won the case—D.H. and others v Czech Republic—in November 2007. The European Court ordered the Czech government to pay a small amount in compensation to the individual children who were represented in the case, and also to put general measures in place to end the discrimination against Romani children and redress, as far as possible, its effects.
Yet little has changed in the last 12 years since the case first went to court—and Julek worries about his sons’ futures.
“I went to a special school and my brother is still in a “practical” school,” he says. I don’t want my sons to be placed there too.” Jitka vehemently nods her head in agreement.
As we leave, the younger Julek and Roland give my colleague, Jana, a “high five” and wave the rest of us goodbye. We organize to meet Julek again in the morning, when he will travel with us to Strasbourg to deliver the same message to the Committee of Ministers at the Council of Europe—the political body charged with making sure European Court judgments are respected.
Julek hopes that by telling his story, it will help people realize the magnitude of the problem with this practice, and propel change. He also knows change takes time—he’s been waiting 12 years—but realizes that his children don’t have that luxury. He wants them to have a better chance in life than he was given and hopes that the Committee of Ministers can help him give them that.
A good first step would be that the Committee ask the Czech government to provide fresh statistics, according to ethnicity, gender and disability, of children in “practical schools” and mainstream education. A second would be to require the Czech government to provide concrete examples of changes on the ground for children as a result of their National Action Plan for Inclusive Education. (Concerns exists that the plan’s implementation has stalled).
To achieve lasting change, the Czech government must begin to make steps to transform the way its education system treats Romani children. One specific advance would be to put support structures in place to ensure Romani children can succeed in mainstream schools. It’s also vital that the Czech government starts to combat the pervasive bullying Romani children suffer in mainstream schools, which leaves parents despairing and deciding to keep their children in the “safer” environment of “practical” schools. The government must undertake a major sensitization campaign with families and teachers in mainstream schools to underscore why inclusion is good for everyone.
To date, those key steps haven’t taken place—and without them, Julek’s dream of seeing his boys grow up in an inclusive, supportive school environment still remains elusive.