11.10.2019From the eye of the storm: Why parents from the village Sotiria, Sliven didn’t pick up their kids from school?

Due to the circumstance, which I wouldn’t have appointed as accidental, schools from the Amalipe Center network, as well as representatives of the Organization, found themselves in Sliven on the day of a violent storm over dropping children out of school as a result of malicious rumors, distributed among gypsy parents - not by accident. We talked to worried parents from Sotirya village, located near Sliven, and we saw what bothers people or at least what they were told, to worry them.

What arguments can reassure them, and how important school is as a factor, to overcome the hysteria? What did parents and teachers say? Why, despite their worries, the Sotirya gypsies trusted their school and did not remove their children from it, even on a critical Monday? Can it be said from where the hysteria came from and how it spread so quickly in the gypsy neighborhoods?

When did the fear for the children in the roma neighborhoods start?

A day before the critical Monday, we began meeting with directors of the network "Every student will be a winner" from Southeast and Central South Bulgaria. One of the topics discussed was the tension over the previous week was over the circulating rumors that social workers would take their children from their families, that sex education would be taught in kindergartens and schools from the age of three and that gypsy children would be sent to Norway in large numbers. Parents are very worried and refuse to sign any sort of document. However, nothing can happen in a school for which the parent has not given his consent, including attending study hall (a full day organization), alarmed colleagues. From the very first school day parents came with declarations reprinting the notorious Declaration "I do not give Bulgarian children", which was initiated by the opponents of the Strategy for the child months ago. But things escalated, according to the directors, after October 04, when a large rally was held in front of the 75 Primary School "Todor Kableshkov" in the Faculteta neighborhood, Sofia, and the video was already being circulated across the country via Facebook and social media. Principals even from small schools like this in the village of Karadzhovo shared this. Together with our colleagues, we discussed what the reaction would be and planned to put this question to Minister Valchev the very next day, when he would have a meeting with the directors of the “Every student will be a winner” network.

What did we see at the school in Sotirya village?

At a meeting with Minister Valchev, held at the Vocational High School of Apparel and Textiles on Monday morning, the principals raised the issue of emerging tension and the need for the institutions to intervene with clear messages that the rumors were absolutely false. At the same time, representatives of the Regional Office for Education said that in two of the major Sliven schools, parents were taking their children out because of the online videos and the rumors that followed. Two hours later, we visited the school in the village of Sotirya, which is part of the "Every student will be a winner" network. The school yard was full of parents, apparently disturbed, but the classrooms were also full of children. After the meeting of Minister Valchev with the teaching staff and the departure of the official guests, we had a meeting with the parents. In a few minutes, the lecture hall was filled with over 100 parents. They shared their strong fears, but also said how much confidence they have in the teachers, headmasters, and the school. After the conversation, to which I was able to respond to all their concerns, they promised that the children would continue to be in school and would not succumb to the emerging psychosis.

What worried parents and where did the rumors come from?

It turns out that social media, and especially Facebook, are extremely popular and convenient
as a channel for spreading rumors. Even here in the Sliven village, almost everyone had watched two videos. One is from a rally in the Faculteta neighborhood, at which one of the organizers made it clear that no laws should be obeyed and parents should not allow anything to be done with their children. Although the orator is unknown in Sotirya, no one knows whether the so-called church she represents is actually existing, and those who present themselves to be her pastors as real clergy, their words for taking the children out of their families and being taken seriously.

The second video, which was also known to all parents, concerns the removal of children by the police of one of the schools in Asenovgrad. We knew about this video from the previous days and were aware that 1) it was years ago and 2) it refers to a case in which a father violated his restraining order. I.e. nothing to do with the spread rumors, but anyway, if we paraphrase the public saying "The eyes of Fear are big" ...

The parents shared that they had been told how social workers would take the children of fathers who had not officially recognized their sons or daughters, unmarried families, poor families, families where parents were abroad, and children were raised by grandmothers and grandfathers. They had heard that this was foreseen in the new laws (without knowing what new laws) were adopted "after the adoption of a child strategy" (which was not actually adopted at all and was withdrawn from public consultation.

After explaining that there was no such strategy, no such laws were enacted and nothing substantially changed in the legislation regarding the removal of children from families, the parents agreed that they were probably outright lies that they should not believe. They shared that they have complete confidence in their teachers and are convinced that at Sotirya's school the children are at a safe place. They were aware of the process of deinstitutionalization and closure of children's homes and agreed that it was unrealistic to think that roma children would be taken from their families against this background. We talked about how often social workers do not even intervene in cases where they should intervene - for example, a wonderful girl from the sixth grade a year ago was married twice by her family and the child protection department did nothing to the parents ...

Although poorly educated the roma parents in Sotirya were aware of important things happening in the country, they accepted my arguments in a more relaxed conversation with them.

From the conversation, it became clear that their fears are being used by political parties, but at least in Sotirya, this was not leading.

Why was the school able to reassure parents?

The school in Sotirya is one of the active schools in the Amalipe Center network and applies all elements of the model "Every student will be a winner". It operates an active parent club that periodically holds meetings in which many parents are involved in. An educational mediator from the local community in the village has been appointed, it is especially important that a roma teacher also works there. All this brought the local community closer to the school, created trust and proved to be the key for the children to stay in the classrooms.

Is the hysteria over?

Not at all. If things in Sliven and Yambol are in the process of normalization, then there is no guarantee that the same storm will not occur in other cities. On Tuesday, the Amalipe Center network is organizing a meeting of directors from Northern Bulgaria. In the morning, they shared that there were no such problems, but worried parents were already showing up in some places in the early afternoon. Even in Sliven, one can hardly predict whether the prepared protest against the nonexistent Child Strategy, on Saturday will not lead to another escalation.

Even if school leaving is overcome relatively quickly, it is quite possible that the hysteria caused will lead to a long-term refusal of parents to consent to their children's participation in extracurricular activities, other interests, and more. Schools currently have many opportunities to diversify the learning process with similar activities that are clearly of interest to children, but in any case require a declaration of consent from their parents. It is very likely that the instilled fear will lead to the unwillingness of low-literate parents to sign any kind of declaration.

Moreover, it will certainly be very difficult from now on for outreach teams involving social workers, police officers, and other institutions to look for children in roma neighborhoods. The creation of the Reach Mechanism and local teams was one of the major educational developments that the current government was proud of. According to the Ministry of Education, they were able to bring back 44,000 children to the classrooms. The hysteria created will certainly make the work of these teams almost impossible.

Deyan Kolev


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