Nikola Lazic, Balkan Insight, July 19, 2018
Almost all Serbian parents whose children are about to enrol in the only Serbian-language school in the southern Serbian town of Bujanovac have signed a petition, asking the school to have separate classes for Roma children.
What upsets the Serbian parents are that Roma make up the majority of the school’s pupils – raising issues of identity alongside allegations of indiscipline on the part of the Roma.
“Roma children are undisciplined, often absent from school, and we do not want our children educated in such conditions,” one parent told BIRN.
“For years now, in every class, there are around five Serbian children to over 20 Roma,” the same parent added.
The protesting parents want the school to hold separate Roma and Serbian classes, so that their children are not schooled in a majority-Roma environment.
Mirjana Nesic, head of the Branko Radicevic school, worried the Serbian parents when she announced that, when school re-starts in September, the 25 new Serbian and 100 new Roma pupils would be split into five classes, each with five Serbs and around 20 Roma.
The parents’ appeal has now gone to the Ministry of Education for adjudication.
The parents want the school to form two all-Roma classes, in order to have more Serbian children in the other three.
But Nesic says her teachers oppose that idea. “If the ministry approves this, we are going to have a problem with the teachers, since they do not want to teach classes with only Roma children in them,” she said.
Meanwhile, local rights groups have got involved, calling the parents’ demands damaging and discriminatory.
Kenan Rasitovic, head of the Youth Forum for Roma Education, OFER, an NGO, says this would be classical segregation, and all children should have equal educational rights.
Rasitovic said he was disappointed to find out that some of those who signed the petition were friends and even former classmates of his.
“I do not understand why children are being taught from a young age that there are differences between nations, which is a basis for creating prejudice, and, in the end, hate,” Rasitovic said.
He said all children should have an equal start in life, which is being hindered from the get-go if they attend school classes on ethnic lines.
Parents, however, dismiss their request as discriminatory.
“This is not about segregation or discrimination. I just want my child to start school in [the same] cultural environment it belongs to.
“I believe that for his development it is good to start school with the same children it went into pre-school [with],” a parent told BIRN.
There are no exact data on the demographics of Bujanovac, which is mainly ethnic Albanian, as the Albanian community boycotted Serbia’s 2011 census.
However, according to estimates, about 60 per cent of the population of 47,000 are Albanian, about 30 per cent are Serbs and just under 10 per cent are Roma.
Of the two elementary schools in town, Naim Fraseri is Albanian-medium, while Branko Radicevic teaches in Serbian. However, all local Roma children attend the Serbian-language school.
The school has branches in local villages where around 300 children obtain their primary education. The main school in town has around 1,100 students, 740 of whom – the majority – are Roma.
Roma in Bujanovac, as elsewhere in Serbia and the region, complain of discrimination and marginalisation, with high rates of unemployment, unresolved housing issues and lack of access to health care and education.
Only a handful of Roma are employed in public-sector work in the local administration, health care or education.
Rasitovic admits there are problems in keeping Roma in school – many drop out early – but said segregation is not the way to go
“We cannot expect to educate Roma overnight,” he said. “It is a long-lasting process. We start that process today, we are aware that we are late, but it is never too late for good initiatives.”