A few weeks before the end of the schoolyear, the education ministry received a letter concerning racism in a leading Estonian international school.
Student of the Tallinn European School, 14-year-old Tom (name changed) had been mocking the school’s only black teacher Viateur Nkurunziza over the color of his skin since September. The letter suggests the teacher had approached the student’s parents and principal Riccardo Larini over the incidents on several occasions but to no avail.
“Tom continued to make animal noises at me and disrupt the economics class throughout the schoolyear, even up to today,” the teacher wrote in his letter to the education ministry that runs the school.
In addition to making inappropriate noises, the student also repeatedly called the teacher a nigger.
“In order to get through the day’s classes, I often had to send Tom out of the classroom,” the teacher wrote, adding that it was sometimes necessary on several occasions during a single 45-minute lesson. “It didn’t work, as Tom went back to his behavior as soon as he was back in the classroom.”
Instead of being punished for inappropriate behavior, Tom’s life was initially made easier. The board decided to exempt him from having to attend Nkurunziza’s class toward the end of the schoolyear and changed his poor economics grade in the e-school program.
Nkurunziza wrote that the international school has been unable to realize the racist nature of a full year of abuse and asked the ministry to look into the situation with the aim of maintaining a multicultural study environment that is friendly towards foreigners.
Spokesperson for the Ministry of Education and Research Sten Otsmaa told Postimees in mid-June that the school board is looking for a solution, with the ministry keeping an eye on things.
“It is important for the ministry to solve the problem in a way to restore a supportive and safe environment at the school,” Otsmaa said, adding that if necessary, the ministry will explain these principles to the staff at the school once more and help them stick to them.
Principal and head of the upper stage of study Riccardo Larini filed a letter of resignation toward the end of June but refused to comment on the incident.
“Because acting principal Sigrid Melts is the only person who can represent the Tallinn European School in the media, I will allow her to answer your questions,” Larini said. He added that serious health problems are keeping him from staying on in any capacity beyond that of a part-time teacher. The ministry confirmed that Larini seeks to resign as principal and head of the senior stage of study.
While Sigrid Melts was head of the junior stage of study at the time and not involved in trying to solve the incident, she has been brought up to speed by now.
She said that Larini started looking for a solution without delay in May and convened a disciplinary board. Larini also talked to the student and his parents.
“As far as I’m aware, everyone involved got a chance to say how they feel, and the student realized the error in their behavior,” Melts explained, adding that classmates of the young man were also talked to.
No place for racism at the school
“It is important for an international school like ours for representatives of different cultures to be able to communicate in a mutually respectful manner. We plan to have counselors from NGO Rajaleidja help raise students’ awareness from next year,” Melts said.
The acting principal said that the Tallinn European School is no place for racist remarks and insults. “It is one of our core values, and our entire school body – students, teachers and parents – follows it. It is not a pretend principle but an actual one, as we could not teach what we believe in ourselves any other way,” she added.
Viateur Nkurunziza, now living in France, agreed to talk about the incident.
“I am glad the ministry and the board finally understood the seriousness of the situation,” Nkurunziza said. He added that things started moving only once the ministry got involved and Larini resigned. What surprised Nkurunziza the most was that none of his colleagues treated him to encouragement and support in a school that is known for its solidarity and warmth.
“I have been a teacher at the Tallinn European School since it was first opened and helped build in from the ground up. It would have saddened me to see the school’s international atmosphere injured because of tolerant attitudes toward discrimination,” he said.
Nkurunziza said he hopes his example will help other Estonian schools avoid similar problems.