Last fall, a few kids from Pitesti teamed up against a classmate they were afraid of. Nobody won, but everyone lost.
For 29 13-year-old students at a school in Pitești, October 17th could have been a Monday like any other. It could have started with an hour of Physics, ended with Physical Education, they could have checked in at school and taken a selfie during the break, they could have gone home to do their homework while also writing hundreds of messages on their WhatsApp group, RIP7BNaspa (RIP7BSucks), as usual. Instead, they came to school before eight in the morning and sat in a semicircle in the hallway, facing the entrance, with their backs to the principal’s office.
Iuliana Pîrvu, the president of the parents’ association for their class, was distributing badges reading “I’m a European student and I have rights” and laminated A4 sheets of paper with the inscription: “I want to learn,” “I want respect,” “I want protection.” Some parents were standing on either flank with matching badges, “I’m a European parent and I have rights,” and a sign reading “7th grade, Group B Protest.”
That’s how their classmate, Marius Rizoiu, came to find them with his father, Viorel — a tall man, thin and weary, with a greying goatee, high cheek bones and sunken eyes.
The previous Friday, all the parents had come to an agreement: the kids would not be attending classes anymore. They also agreed on the content of their messages. Iuliana Pîrvu made the signs on the morning of the protest, in the same way she’d written, in the preceding weeks and months, all the complaints to the School Inspectorate, Child Protection, Police, Save the Children, Prosecutor’s Office, hoping that someone would solve the problem.
Their problem was the aggressive behavior of the boy with special education needs (SEN) who was now standing before them, head bowed, hands clasped around his backpack, and who didn’t yet have the chance to take off his jacket and hat. Father and son crowded together under a yellow board with the words “Diversity for special education needs 2013–2015” triumphantly written over it.
Over the next hour, national TV stations and local newspapers came at the school. The protesting parents claim they do not know who tipped them off, but they told the press that Marius had been hitting and threatening to kill their kids for months, that his family wouldn’t cooperate, and that classes couldn’t take place anymore. Pîrvu aggressively asked the boy’s father: “Can you give me your guarantee in writing, me and the other 29 families, that one day this child isn’t going to seriously injure someone?” He answered in a hushed voice, “I’ll come and stay with him,” and the principal, arriving later, said “the triangle formed between parents, children and teaching staff should be closed off.” Two hours later, Marius and his father left, and the students all went to class. That evening, every national television station covered the story of students being attacked by their classmate, of their parents doing everything they could to integrate him, and of the family that refused to move him to a different school. It was the end of a fight and the start of a war.
On Tuesday, the protest continued in the same way: the 29 students were in the hall holding signs, their parents took turns joining them, while Marius and his father were in the classroom for the Biology and Romanian language classes . The 29 students were marked absent. Also on Tuesday, the media started publishing more nuanced details of the story: the child has ADHD and the school was discriminating against him, he beat a form of cancer “with a 1% chance of survival,” he’s adopted. A Facebook page was made, “29 de copii în pericol” (29 children in danger), then deleted. There the parents of the students in protest had shared two documents from Marius’s school file which included all of his personal information: his personal ID number, address, his specific learning disability. There were notes which he had written to other classmates, reading “I want to stab you to death”, there were statements of his being a classroom disruption, signed by the teachers.
Then, the parents of the 29 students said they were protesting against the boy’s violent behavior, that they didn’t know he had ADHD and that, besides him, another student in the class had ADHD, a girl who’d been integrated without a problem. Two camps formed on the internet: pro-parents and anti-discrimination.
As of the third day of the protest, Marius stopped coming to school, the children went to class, the Ministries of Education and Labor stepped in, and the county offices started taking meetings: the Prefecture, the County Council, the School Inspectorate. They spoke about “a case of intolerance” and “the observance of good conditions in the educational process,” and that “something must be done”.
But what does it mean when a few 13-year-old kids form an alliance against one of their classmates? Whose job was it to prevent the situation from reaching this point? Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? And what happens when we are so sure of our truth that we try to bring justice ourselves?
Since Marius’s behavior had worsened just as 7th grade classes began — he’d been threatening boys and touching girls, and nobody could manage to either accommodate him or to make him change schools -, the disgruntled parents presented the Rizoiu family with an ultimatum during the Friday meeting before their protest: by Monday, 8 a.m., they were to make a decision: stay or go? And to make sure they would get what they asked for, during discussions which excluded the boy’s family, they decided there would be a protest if he came to school.
“We were told we had to reconcile, to solve it,” Iuliana Pîrvu says. “But we were getting desperate, and not just overnight, but after dozens of hours of meetings.” And she would know best, having participated in all the meetings and written all the petitions, going on television, creating a Facebook page the authority monitoring personal data usage would later hold her accountable for, and she would be the last one to leave the Prosecutor’s office that November. Of all the parents, she was the most affected by the conflict, a kind of proud mama-bear, always having something to say. The tension became so much for her that she stopped going to her scheduled check-ups with the endocrinologist, convinced the results of the analysis would be all over the place. Pîrvu, a realtor and a volunteer at a children’s cancer organization, is familiar with nerves and risks: her husband is a skydiving instructor in Germany, and their son, Marius’s classmate, dreams of attending the Aviation Academy.
Everything was OK with school group B, until 2016, when Marius was transferred over from the A group in the second semester of 6th grade. Almost all his new classmates were taught in the step-by-step system for the 3rd and 4th grades, which meant they had two teachers and were together every day until 4pm. The kids are very tight-knit, as are the parents. They take pictures of each other in class, though Marius is never in them, and they celebrate birthdays without him because “you don’t bring a pistol to a party”, as one of the children said. Some of the parents are on visiting terms. Pîrvu refers to Cristina Radu as her best friend, the school’s librarian and mother of one of the girls in the class, and they all refer to the children as “our” kids.
School no. 16 “I. L. Caragiale” is Marius’s third. The conflicts seem to follow him everywhere which, if you ask his former classmates, is his fault. But if you ask his mother, his classmates and the schools are to blame.
The new classmates knew that, in the A group, a class well-known for being violent, Marius was both being hit and, in his turn, beating others up. So it came as a surprise to everyone when, in the first weeks, he was friendly and very polite. “Things were going really well at the beginning. It seemed strange what the others were saying”, the class president says. And the parents were impressed after the first meeting when Marius’s parents told them he was adopted, had cancer and was behind in class, while the others had excluded him. “At the meeting, we were all in tears, we were a wreck”, Pîrvu recalls.
After a while, Marius started talking during class. Then he was getting up from his desk. Then he was hitting the other kids, finishing the second semester of 6th grade with an average score of 6 out of 10 for classroom behavior. Then he was picking on girls and threatening to commit suicide: the students say that during one class he wanted to jump out the window and, in another, stabbed himself in the hand with a compass, which got him sent to the nurse’s office. For many families, “What did Marius do now?” was the first conversation after the kids came through the door. Students talked about it on their WhatsApp group, parents talked about it on their WhatsApp group, and neither Marius nor his mother were included in either. They talked about it in several parents’ meetings when his father also came, though he didn’t manage to offer an explanation or solution for his son’s behavior. They discussed it in the teacher’s lounge and the principal’s office where, last year, groups and groups of students came to complain about Marius hitting them, the principal says.
The parents say the classmate most affected is one that Marius called from a blocked number one night. He was being threatened, receiving notes that read “I’m going to kill you”, “I’m going to stab you”, and text messages that read “you’re a chicken and you don’t want to be my friend anymore”, which the boy’s father confirmed. The boy was then required to take 15 meetings of psychological counseling. However, his family has no record of the calls or the text messages because they reset his phone. There are only a few notes left, in nearly illegible writing. In one of the notes, titled Written Statement, he states: “I, Rizoiu Marius, here undersigned, want to sue the student Flavius because he wants to steal things from my desk. I will no longer be threatened, cussed at, or yelled at. I want to rip him to shreds, punch him and kill him on the bus.” He knows how to make a written statement because he’s also had written statements against him. The class president says that, during recess, Marius had written the boy’s address and phone number on the blackboard and urged the others: “Let’s go stab him!”. And sometimes Marius would tell him that there’s a camera in his jacket recording him.
Marius threatened to push another classmate’s little brother down the stairs, so the boy started looking after his sibling during every recess, and it’s a relief when he has to stay at home sick.
Another classmate told the story of him bruising her left arm during a computer science class in May, one of the first more serious incidents. “He was banging the keyboard on the desk so I told him to stop it, and he grabbed me”, the girl says. Her parents wanted to file a complaint with the police, but it was rejected because the perpetrator was a minor. So the parents sent the complaint to the General Directorate for Social Assistance and Children’s Protection of Argeș (DGASPC). The organization’s response was that Marius’s mother doesn’t believe the event took place, writing that “your daughter has a problem with her son”, but the boy was still taken for psychological counseling.
The class president, who had assumed the role of appeasing Marius without anyone asking her to, says he doesn’t understand that “no” means no. He didn’t understand that she wouldn’t like him to kiss her arms when she was wearing a T-shirt one day. “He pushed me down on the desk, he cornered me in the classroom and he tried to kiss me. I didn’t know what to do. I thought if I tried to get a way too quickly, he’d get angry. When he did it… it wasn’t disgusting, but I didn’t like it.” And when she asked him to leave her alone, he told her he was going to stab her, too.
Her mother called Marius’s mother in October and asked her to speak with her boy about “no longer having any physical contact” with the girl. When he came back to school, after the protest, Marius considered her his best friend again, and was much calmer. “We don’t know what he’s thinking or what his plans are”, the class president said in mid-January 2017 with a slight air of amusement, as though the situation seemed behind them. “He still starts growling or laughing, but he’s much better.”
His behavior is not related to any specific teacher or subject, and his classmates have realized that they don’t know what he could be suffering from, but that he is “crazy for love.”
At one point, a police officer came to talk about preventing violence. The students learned that the fines for acts of violence are much higher on school grounds. Therefore, at the end of the school day, one of the parents found them calculating the cost of beating the boy up off school grounds.
From the parents, to the principal, to the students, everyone gives the same examples when talking about Marius, but the details get blurrier the more they are repeated. According to his classmates: he didn’t get up on the windowsill, but had only rushed over to the window during a break, after saying he’s angry and he’s going to kill himself during class; the compass pierced either his wrist or the back of his hand, but there wasn’t any blood and he didn’t go to the nurse’s office.
The parents’ second grievance with the school was plummeting school performance. The teachers could no longer make up for the time lost trying to accommodate the boy in classes. The 7th grade B group had gone from being the best class (according to the teaching staff and the principal) to a class the teachers didn’t want to be in anymore, a class where they were writing statements to be signed by the students: “The student Rizoiu, Marius constantly disrupts class insulting his classmates, threatening them with violence…” (Physics class, September 15th, 2016); “The student Rizoiu, Marius constantly disrupts class with such lines as ‘I want to stab you,’ ‘I’m going to tear you to shreds.’” (English class, September 20th, 2016); “The student Rizoiu, Marius disrupts class telling jokes, eating paper, and putting on a real circus.” (Romanian language class, October 11th, 2016). However, in January, the same Romanian teacher said other students in the school are far more aggressive than Marius, and she’d written his mother before a note assuring her the boy wasn’t disrupting class.
“After all, we were all being brave, thinking like: ‘What are you going to do?’” Iuliana Pîrvu’s son says. He has a speech impediment and he’s a head shorter than Marius, a model airplane, Pokémon anime and street dance enthusiast. “But it feels weird when he looks at you so angrily and says: ‘I’ll stab you, I’ll kill you!”.
“You adults do something,” he told his mother before the protest, “we don’t know what else to do.”
The school and the Directorate of Children’s Protection believe they’d taken all the necessary measures: for the past two years, Marius had a case manager, a social worker monitoring his situation at school and at home; after the incident in which he bruised his classmate’s arm, he’d done counseling in the summer with a psychologist from the General Directorate of Social Assistance and Children’s Protection (DGASPC). What’s more, they formed an “inclusion committee” between the School Inspectorate, the DGASPC, the school and the families, a committee which had decided Marius would attend only three classes per day. The boy would also be accompanied by an adult but, though his parents accepted these conditions, they could not accompany him when they were scheduled to, on Wednesdays, and he was left there the whole school day, rather than just three hours.
The other adults responsible for supervising him were: Cristina Radu, the school librarian (on Mondays), Pîrvu (on Tuesdays), the assistant teacher (on Thursdays) and the school psychologist (Fridays).
“I think those were the worst hours of my life”, Pîrvu says of the two days she stayed in class. “It started to look like a horror movie.” She impersonates the way his expression would change, breathing heavily through his nostrils. ‘Marius, what’s wrong?’ — ‘I’m angry.’
“The second week I was with him, I heard some rumbling in the classroom. He was standing, knotting his face with his hand raised over the classmate in front of him. I saw a compass, but I couldn’t really tell if it was a pen or a compass, I didn’t search him. I was freaked out. I grabbed his hand, though I know I’m not allowed to, and I took him out to Children’s Protection at the school. I said: (…) if he’s going to injure a child in front of me, I’m the one who’s responsible,” Pîrvu continues. “He’s a two-faced kid, I think he knows very well what he’s doing. He put on a guilty look with Child’s Protection, and when I closed the door, he looked back at me and grinned.”
After the third day of protest, Marius didn’t come to school until the end of the month. It was good, Iuliana Pîrvu’s son says, “there was no one threatening us”. This time, Narcis Sima, Marius’s psychologist from the DGASPC, came to their class and asked everyone to write what they’d like from the boy on the same sheet of paper, and to sign it. “I want you to leave”, “Stop being violent”, “Be nice”, some of them wrote. “Let’s all be like a family”, “Let’s be friends”, others wrote. The children say they clearly communicated that they wanted Marius to leave, but it would seem the psychologist misunderstood, and he thanked them for agreeing to include him. The parents were not notified of the visit and they considered it inappropriate. Luciana Hăloiu-Richardson, a behavioral specialist, regards the student’s response as mob mentality behavior and irrelevant. What she would have done is to sit in a corner of the classroom without the students knowing why, for a couple of days, gathering information and then deciding on treatment methods. Sima refused to talk with us about Marius. His only statement was to the media during the protest: “The child does not have a learning disability, and he doesn’t pose any social threat”.
One week after the protest, a couple of NGOs publicly took Marius’s side. The Center for Legal Resources (CRJ), which fights for the protection of human rights and social equality, drafted a letter signed by 27 different organizations asking the Ministries of Labor and Education to explain how Marius’s rights to education and school inclusion were being observed. Another NGO from Bucharest, the European Center for the Rights of Children with Disabilities (CEDCD), announced they filed a criminal complaint for blackmail and incitement to hatred or discrimination against four parents who used their own children, Marius’s classmates, as “instruments of hate against a child with disabilities”. To this day, the four parents have yet to be named.
The CEDCD also filed a complaint with the National Counsel for Fighting Discrimination (CNCD) against the principal and the school psychologist, as well as the Inspector General for schools and the inspector in charge with special education for “the latent and abusive measures which enabled this appalling situation in Pitești”. As Madalina Turza, the CEDCD president, explained, the principal’s insults, the daily bullying and the hate-speech on the Facebook page are unjust and degrading. She, herself, is the mother of a child with Down syndrome who, in 2014, had been beaten by teachers at a special education school in Bucharest, against whom she filed a criminal complaint (the case is still in progress). Now she studies public policy for people with disabilities at the University of Minnesota on a Fulbright scholarship.
Turza says Marius’s mother contacted the CEDCD at the beginning of 2016, telling them the boy was being excluded and humiliated in class, and she could come to no resolution with the principal. The organization studied the case and decided to send notices about the types of services the boy should have received to the school, the inspectorate and the DGASPC. They say his case resembles those of hundreds of others that came to their attention. For some cases, the organization takes a public stance by sending open letters to authorities, while for others it offers legal assistance. Their most recent case involved a child with Down syndrome in Botoșani, in which the CNCD acknowledged for the first time that some of the classmates’ parents were also guilty of discrimination at school. In January 2017, Turza posted on Facebook announcing the victory: “The Argeș group is next”.
She says what makes Marius’s case different from other cases brought to them is that a protest was organized, and the fact that four leaders of the parents have connections with the local press. “If you do a public campaign and say that the child is a monster, whether or not this is the case, this is no longer discrimination. It’s incitement to hatred and discrimination”, Turza says. Because he isn’t the only child with special needs, when you discriminate against him, you discriminate against all others. “What these people have done now is clearly outlined in the Criminal Code,” Turza says. Regardless of the diagnosis and whether or not the parents were aware of it, as long as there is a diagnosis certifying a disability, they are guilty of discrimination.
In Marius’s case, Turza’s theory is that antagonism exists precisely because of his disability.
None of the NGOs have spoken with the parents of Marius’s classmates, nor have they advised Marius’s family and the others to talk to each other and to collaborate. The CRJ said they wrote the public letter based on the information in the media during the protests. They would later go to Pitesti with a therapist, counsel the family to leave the school, and offer to find a school in Pitești with better experience in inclusive education. Because it seemed they would accept, CRJ no longer viewed it necessary to speak with the other families; however, Marius’s parents stopped contacting the organization. Moreover, a lawyer representing one of the protesting parents invited CRJ to discuss the matter, which they turned down on the grounds that it was an overly formal request.
Meanwhile, the CEDCD President who filed the complaints says she had no intention of speaking to the parents of the 29 students: “We do not have the necessary resources to go to every school in the country and do this”. She didn’t respond to the text message Pîrvu sent her well over 10 days before starting the protest, to the messages on the website, or the invitation for a discussion sent by the lawyer after the protest.
While his case was being debated on television and Facebook: Who should be doing the inclusion and how?, Are teachers trained to work with a special needs-student?, Why don’t all schools have a psychologist?, Marius and his mother were at Dr. Alexandru Obregia Psychiatric Hospital in Bucharest for neurological and psychiatric examination. The school and the Prefecture say it was them who requested the medical re-evaluation. The family says that the appointment had been made before the protest.
According to medical documents the mother has made available to us, the neurological diagnosis was within normal range, while the psychiatric one states: borderline intelligence and “other socially-related disorders in childhood”, meaning some behavioral disorders which hinder his full social inclusion. They were recommended individual and family counseling, as well as group therapy, so Marius could learn how to interact with others. So “there’s nothing wrong with him, they just need to be more considerate when communicating with him. He has an adjustment disorder from not spending much time in school”, his mother says.
This wasn’t the first time the mother and child were in the hospital together. It started when he was three years old, immediately after the adoption, when he had surgery for an inguinal hernia. Then they were at the Grigore Alexandrescu Children’s Emergency Hospital for a month when Marius was nine, getting lymph node samples and expecting the diagnosis that wasn’t coming. They were at the Fundeni Clinical Institute for a month of intensive treatment immediately after that, followed by six cycles of chemotherapy. Then, when he was 12 years old, they were at Marie Curie Hospital for gangrenous appendicitis.
Rodica Rizoiu didn’t have an easy life and now her family problems have fallen mainly on her. She was in the doctor’s offices, at the schools, at Children’s Protection Services, she was on television, she handled the bills. A 46-year-old woman, 1.7 meters tall, with shoulder-length, red hair, strong arms and worker’s hands with painted fingernails on rare occasions, when she can. She’s a nurse at a neuro-psychology care center in Bascovele, 29 kilometers from Pitești. She administers the patients’ medication, serves their meals, and accompanies them to the hospital when necessary. She also has four siblings and started working at 16 after graduating tenth grade, when her parents could no longer afford to let her take the next exams to continue high school. She worked in a greenhouse for two years, at a textile factory for five, six as a concierge at the care center she’s at now, where she added another six years working as an orderly and, upon finishing high school and getting a post-secondary education, as a nurse.
The father, Viorel Rizoiu, is a skilled worker with the Public Domain Administration in Pitești. He has had major health issues as well: surgery on a malignant lymph node followed by chemotherapy in 2014, and a pulmonary cyst in 2015 which left him with some degree of disability and only part-time work. “He works for us to be OK, but you cannot send him to school,” the mother says. He doesn’t like the commotion there, or standing in the hall “like a fool”. “There’s a lot of pain in him, he hangs his head and stays quiet. That’s why we can no longer stand the meetings, because it was always, always just these accusations”.
They wanted a child, but they couldn’t have one. After 14 miscarriages, the woman says she saw Marius at the Pediatric Hospital in Pitești, abandoned. She was 34 years old and going to school to be a nurse, he was one year old and he reached out to her first. She said: “I’m taking him, whatever God may bring”. The adoption procedures lasted two years, during which time the child had to stay with a foster family.
They took him home on June 29th, 2006. “He was our joy, our soul, he was our everything.” In the next six years later she only worked the night shift so she could be home during the day, though she lost 10 kilograms that first month, trying to make up for lost time in his development: he wasn’t walking or talking, he couldn’t stand taking baths or combing his hair, he didn’t know how to kick a ball and he would cover his ears when it was noisy from an electric table saw for cutting wood his foster family used to have in their yard. They neither asked for, nor were they offered, any support from DGASPC as far as how to raise him, how to make up for the three years they’d lost, or what school to send him to.
At his baptism, Marius interrupted the priest from time to time with an “Aaameen,” as he was starting to talk a little bit. His mother tells the story in a soft voice and takes out a photo album. “Here’s us in the yard with his godmother. Here we are in the forest, we went to the healing fountain on the Day of the Life-giving Spring. Here he is with his dad. Here he is just starting to walk. Here he is with his bicycle in the house, learning to ride. Oh, what didn’t the little guy have… Here in the yard, I was teaching him poems. Here he is starting to eat by himself. Here’s us at the Slănic Monastery. Here at Kids Town. Here at the Village Museum.” Ever since he was little, he’s always liked soup the most. And “a bit of grilled meat” and “a little something sweet”, but he wasn’t allowed too much. The mother quietly explains a diet she’d been trying to keep him on the last four years, since “his problems started.”
The mother talks at length about Marius’s surgeries. She talks about the day Marius had a fever and pain beneath his left arm, about being dissatisfied with the medical diagnosis in Pitești and taking the Maxi Taxi shuttle to Bucharest; about spending a month at Grigore Alexandrescu with no diagnosis, and about how she would take medical books out of the doctor’s office, trying to put the pieces together herself.
She talks about how his fever didn’t break even after they extirpated the armpit nodes, and getting a phone call one day saying it’s likely non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes, and they would wait for the results of another study to see if there’s a chance he might recover. This is where she gets her “1% chance of survival” from, that she told the media about during the protest, and she repeats it with undying conviction.
“Then they sent me to Fundeni. I thought it was going to be my last trip,” the mother says, starting to cry. They lived a month in the hospital for six cycles of chemotherapy during fall and winter 2011–2012. She still keeps a black notepad in her makeup bag, where she recorded every treatment method for every cycle. She was one of the people responsible for changing his infusions, too. His father would come when he could, on weekends. Almost everything at the hospitals and schools fell on her, but she doesn’t hold it against him. The boy is sure his mother saved his life, the mother is sure God did. Marius still doesn’t leave the house without drinking holy water or anointing himself, and he goes to church almost every Sunday.
His mother says he grew up too fast after chemotherapy. Mentally and physically he’d changed, “just different, more adult”. That’s when she thought to see a psychologist. After some months going to a private practice, the psychologist would tell his mother: “I don’t know what more I can do for him. He keeps giving me my own advice, there’s no use in coming back”.
He was missing a lot of school because he was not to leave the house with his immune system so weakened between chemo cycles. So, in November 2012, he got his first school guidance certificate: a documented issued by the County Center for Resources and Educational Assistance (CJRAE) for children with special education needs. It stipulated that Marius had the right to home schooling, but the assistant teacher never came, his mother says. The family was living in Drăganu at the time, about 30 kilometers from Pitești, and the assistant teacher said there was no way he could make it out there, although there were minibuses. The family didn’t request another teacher. “That didn’t interest me. You know what I was interested in? That my child got better”.
They moved to Pitești the following year, and Marius began 4th grade at the school corresponding to their address. He didn’t have an assistant teacher there either, his mother says. According to the 4th grade teacher, Marius was hitting classmates regularly so she’d moved his chair next to her desk; she left school with ripped blouses from trying to separate fights, and she was relieved when Marius was absent because they could catch up on the course materials. But none of the students ever laid a finger on him in her presence.
“The teacher (…) was away from the class a lot. I’ve seen fighting,” the mother says. They were stomping on his notebooks, throwing his backpack and his hat. It got to where he could no longer write two sentences. “I told his father: let’s transfer him. (…) We brought him back to life and now what?”
At the beginning of 5th grade, they decided on “I. L. Caragiale” from the list of schools in the area, where Nicolae Ghiorghișor was the principal in 2015, a teacher of religion and “a real saint”, the mother says. But the conflicts started immediately. She says the other students were shouting “wart”, “cripple”, “dirt lip”, and Marius says they were beating him. This is how his mother decided to stay at school — in or just outside the classroom — first at her own initiative, then, by written request from the form teacher. “And the school got into this habit to have us standing at the door. But what I want is for him to be autonomous, to be free”.
Because of the violence, parents filed complaints requesting that Marius leave the school, and the family refused. The principal, Alin Vlad, having returned to the position in September 2015, after a year and a half at the Inspectorate of Schools, convinced the family to move him from the A to the B group — where he is now and the kids are better behaved, where Marius agrees he was nicely welcomed and he wasn’t being hit at first. It wasn’t until the spring of 2016 that he started being a disruption there, too, and again the school asked his mother to stand at the door, complaints were piling up and, by June, the tension was ready to explode.
The mother says the pressure she’d been under has taken a toll on her physically — the mounting negativity on the days of the protest led, more recently, to bouts of hypertension. She’s always been between a rock and a hard place. For example, she says that when Mădălina Turza’s NGO advised her to publicly denounce the school’s discrimination against Marius back in spring, she was worried about making a scandal and drawing media attention. What’s more, the decision to pull Marius out of school for two weeks after the protest was imposed by the Prefecture and the DGASPC, she claims, insinuating that otherwise she might lose her child. Meanwhile, the NGO advised her to continue sending him to school. It was also only by Mădălina Turza’s suggestion that the mother agreed to talk to us.
Then, so she wouldn’t have to say she couldn’t accompany her child to classes, she’d be given an accommodating work schedule by the general manager at the center she works for, which is also under the authority of the DGASPC. “I say fine, but is someone thinking about whether or not I can go on like this?”, the mother said. “That’s the way it is, the risk is on you”, the general manager responded. Now she resents those daily three hours at school. She spends time on her phone in the first hour, reads the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the second, and is waiting for the bell to ring so she can leave in the third.
“Those five surgeries, five anaesthesias didn’t affect his little brain at all? (…) I don’t understand how any one, knowing what he’s been through, can say: ‘I don’t care, it’s your child.’ ” She’s referring to all the parents of the classmates Marius had who, she says, didn’t accept him precisely because he’d been sick, because he had difficulties adjusting. Principal Vlad told her a parent must be willing to do anything for their child, and the teachers, she says, didn’t know how to help him.
At 1 p.m. on November 9th, 2016, in front of the Pitești Court Prosecutor’s office, a reporter dictates the news over the phone: “There are 28 children who’ve now come before the Prosecutor after an organization in Bucharest filed a criminal complaint regarding one student’s discrimination”. Someone was filming with their phone, someone else was holding a camera over the cluster of open umbrellas that crowded the entrance, where information from their identity cards are being registered by a gendarme officer. There weren’t 28, but 26 students from the 7th grade, about 28 parents and two lawyers. At 1:24 pm, everyone had registered. The first would leave after two hours, the last, after about seven.
They were grouped between four prosecutors and went to give a statement individually. Both children and parents were called as witnesses, and thus were not to give testimony in front of the others, so as not to influence one another, which they hadn’t realized before then. Before them were four DGASPC representatives and two lawyers: one representing the boy Marius had called and threatened and, the second, representing the rest. Though the parents found this inappropriate, the procedure was done correctly according to provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, which says: if there’s a suspicion that the parents could influence a minor’s testimony, they may receive representation from a guardian authority instead.
Witnesses were asked to recount everything that happened in class since Marius had been transferred there, whether or not they were instigating or calling him names, and how the principal behaved with him.
There was an exam-day anxiety in the narrow entry hall throughout the hearings. Some of the mothers were guarding backpacks, they were chain smoking in the yard, the closed lockers were continuously ringing from the phones the children were not allowed to take with them. “Was Gabi scared?”, “I should have been in there, not his father, he gets angry and who knows what he’ll say…”, “What did they ask you, did you manage?” They were making assumptions about which four parents were included in the complaint, since they had all been summoned. No one had imagined that the protest would bring the families before the prosecutors. After even discussing that all the children change classes, the parents had decided to take the inspectorate and the DGASPC to court for allowing the students to be put in harm’s way, knowing how the situation was at school.
The parents and children left that evening, scared and bewildered (some of the kids were asking if they would have to go to jail), convinced that a great injustice had been done to them, that the NGO had turned the world against them. They were sure they’d done everything they could have done: they’d welcomed Marius kindly, tried to mediate conflicts, asked the authorities to help on countless occasions, offered to pay for a therapist, sat with him in class to protect him, and yet they stood accused.
“It seems that we are being totally overlooked in this conflict, there’s only the Rizoiu family”, Pîrvu said that evening. “We were treated like criminals”.
Marius’s first visit with a psychiatrist was in primary school; he was told he had ADHD and was given medication. After chemotherapy, he went to another psychiatrist, who said he didn’t have ADHD and gave him medication to stimulate cerebral circulation. He took this one, too. And the story went on like this: in five years, two doctors told him he had ADHD, three others and a psychologist told him that he didn’t. “They’re all specialists, so who are we supposed to believe?”, the mother asks.
She went on TV shortly after the protest and said just what the doctors were saying to her: he had ADHD before, but now he doesn’t have it, and there are different opinions. This was enough to agitate the parents even further, now convinced someone was lying and the mother wasn’t giving the child his prescribed treatment. The parents, the principal and the form teacher said that they didn’t know Marius had ADHD. They only knew of the school guidance certificate for a type of somatic disorder (which was also posted on Facebook), allowing him a simplified schedule and an assistant teacher, though his mother says she brought documents to the school doctor’s office attesting to his ADHD (teachers do not have access to students’ medical records). The family is not required by law to notify the school of any medical diagnosis or handicap of the child, nor are they required to obtain a school guidance certificate.
ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder, is a psychological disorder that is expressed in a child’s inability to concentrate on a particular topic or task. The latest studies show there is no clear diagnostic or treatment, the environment may exacerbate the symptoms, and that it wouldn’t constitute a disorder if taken on its own. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 15% of children in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD, but those who actually suffer symptoms are about two-thirds of this percentage. In recent years, the over-diagnosing, internationally, as well as in Romania, has been intensified by lobbyists in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as certain cultural factors. In our country, where polite, good behavior is of paramount importance at schools and physical reprimands are no longer tolerated, former officials of the Ministry of Education would speak of “an ADHD epidemic”, when we met with them. Meanwhile, the official statistics are contradictory: The National Center for Mental Health says that between 2009–2015, 31,000 children were diagnosed with ADHD, while the Ministry of Health says 8,500.
In Marius’s case, it was precisely the ADHD diagnosis that was presented on TV, that polarized the public and, in the eyes of the NGOs, weakened his case. “The press bought [the ADHD diagnosis], because it’s catchy,” says Turza, the president of the NGO that filed the complaint with the Prosecutor.
When it comes to documentation- what the school knew, what the mother had and also passed along — things are unclear. Both sides have their suspicions: either the mother was covering up psychiatric diagnoses that could work against him, or the school had all the information, but didn’t care. The mother left us with a thick, plastic folder to browse through, with all the medical documentation: a mix of MRIs, blood tests, discharge documentation, prescriptions and school guidance certificates. “We’re an open book and we have nothing to hide.” She had taken the same folder to school: “Pick what you need”, she’d told them.
Principal Vlad says that Marius doesn’t have special education needs, and he’s very intelligent and clever. “If you have a talk with him, he’ll blow you away. (…) Someone diagnosed him with this somatic…, this handicap. I went to my colleagues: ‘Hey, is he handicapped in your classes?’ No, he has grades of six, seven, eight out of ten” (in reality, most of his grades are five and six, with an occasional 10 in music and religion).
According to his LinkedIn profile, Vlad taught for 15 years at a school in Mioveni, then at School no. 16 since 2008. He also went into business and it was going well, he even talks about it, but he quit in the 2000s. He has a white-hot temper. His speech is hurried, some sentences don’t have subjects, he’s convinced that the school has done all the right things, and he sometimes contradicts himself. He either says that Marius “isn’t sick”, or that his mother wasn’t giving him the medications he needed. “What is his special education need?”, he’d said in his office before the winter vacation. “Nada, zero. Somatic means that you have an internal disease and that’s all. You stay home, miss some classes, then you catch up. There’s nothing wrong here”, and he points to his own temple. He’d also looked into how SEN is defined. He’d asked his mother about it, too, who is a general practitioner and had also done watches at “the mad house. And she told me: never have an argument with mad men or drunkards”. The principal says the other 29 students “are more discriminated against than Marius. We’re nursing him along and turning our backs on the others”.
Confusion was also among the parents of Marius’s classmates. By “somatic” they had understood motor problems, a difficulty caused by the surgeries in the groin area, which was, in fact, the reason he was excused from physical education until 7th grade. Although it’s illegal, the form teacher, Alina Nicola, had given the parents access to Marius’s file, something the librarian, Cristina Radu, admitted to, while Pîrvu says the two documents she put on Facebook were from pictures she’d taken during a meeting of the inclusion committee. Nicola left on sick leave during the protest days and didn’t return to school until January, during which time she refused to speak with us. The parents of those 29 students and the principal say she got sick from the pressure she was under.
“Surgery is a trauma that can also lead to emotional disorders”, the psychologist Augustina Ene explains at the beginning of January. She coordinates the department of psycho-pedagogical assistance at CJRAE and she took over Marius’s case after the protest. She agreed to talk with us about the subject only because the family had done so beforehand. She explains that Marius’s special education needs have stemmed precisely from the malignant lymphoma which kept him in the hospital for an extended period of time.
The Rizoius live in a neighborhood in a tiny studio apartment rented from the city hall on the outskirts, in a renovated building, formerly for people without families. The wind whistles down towards the end of an alley, and pours out into the open. It’s a long building, with a balcony spanning its width, interrupted occasionally by aluminum foil or PVC windows closing in the kitchens. The clothesline was frozen to the wire, oval rugs were hung over the railing, trash was left on the ground, garbage cans were ransacked, the smell of onions cooking lingered. From outside, it seems like a throng of souls, dreams, wishes and helplessness.
Most of the time, Marius is at home with either his mother or his father. He’s only with both during weekends spent at their house in Ursoaia, 30 kilometers away, where his grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s and needs extra care. The parents would take turns: working, staying with the old woman in the countryside, or staying with Marius in Pitești. The studio is so small that they can’t be more than a few meters away from each other. There is a maroon curtain between the hall and the bedroom, and two glass doors to the bathroom and the kitchen, offering no privacy. At night, they’ll either sleep together or, when his father is there, Marius will sleep on a futon taking up almost the entire narrow hallway. At the beginning of February, a bichon, Rocky, joined the family. Whatever makes the boy happy.
When you meet him, Marius’s politeness and good manners are disarming, his eyes are usually downcast and smiling. “My name is Marius Rizoiu”, he says when he opens the door at the studio apartment. He has dark hair, 1.7 meters tall, a moustache is beginning to grow, his voice changes and his eyelids droop easily. “Turn the lights off in the hall and turn them on in here, baby”, his mother requests. He’s watching the notebook you write in, the red light of the audio recorder, and after two hours, he puts his head on your shoulder out of a false sense of familiarity. He whispers to his mother, asking for permission when he goes to the bathroom, and apologizes when he interrupts her.
Before being excused from physical education, he liked swimming and handball. He likes watching cartoons, Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo, and reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which the history teacher gave him as a present. He tells you about the camp in the Sâmbăta de Sus commune, where he’d gone with other kids who had cancer, about the Făgăraș Citadel. From time to time, he tucks his pinky under his ring finger, a nervous tic. He has trouble finding words and his ankle joints aren’t very agile — he cannot really squat. He gets it from his infancy, from never leaving the crib. The second time he sees you, he’ll be proud to tell you he got a six in Romanian, he’ll try to show you how he jumped in the sandbox. He’ll continue calling you “sir” or “ma’am,” even if you ask him to call you by your first name. Then, so you can talk openly with his mother, he’ll go to the neighbors with a girl who has spastic cerebral palsy, and who’s always happy to see him.
The mother is convinced that Marius doesn’t swear because she’s never heard him do it, he doesn’t make strange noises — though the classmates say it happened even when she was in the hall -, he isn’t aggressive, on the contrary, the others are aggressive to him and he just responds to it. If he touched the girls it was either out of kindness or by accident, and, anyways, they’re at that age when everyone’s mad for “smooches”, and “everyone does it”. She says they talked with him about sexually-transmitted diseases, that girls have periods, and that he’s not allowed to touch them if they don’t want him to. About the class president, Marius says he likes her, because she’s “kind and gentle, and she listens to him”. His mother doesn’t know why he’s obsessed with blood, because they haven’t even slaughetered a hen in front of him, and he doesn’t watch television alone. Though one time, with his mother sitting next to him, he got to see a scene with a vampire sucking blood — “maybe it’s from there”.
Marius admits to writing some aggressive notes to blow off steam, but says he didn’t give them to anyone. Rather, he crumpled them up and threw them in the trash, where the classmates must have discovered them. He denies having stuck a compass in his own hand, and says it’s actually he who was called by the other students from a blocked number, his life threatened by a girl. He once came home with finger marks on his throat from a classmate, who’d told him: “I’m going to stop your mother on the street and kick her butt so hard her head spins”, and then Marius threatened to push his brother down the stairs at school. “He believes everything they say”, his mother says. Marius doesn’t pick up on subtleties, and his mother told him not to take everything to heart, but to gather evidence, “so that they have something on the others”. That’s what the NGO told them.
The mother is happy that her boy has plans to finish high school and become a professional driver. Marius will only be enrolled in a special needs school over her dead body. She knows that kids with problems are rounded up there, they are abused by staff, and they have no hope of social inclusion.
Rodica Rizoiu is certain that the principal and the librarian “run the school” and they want her boy gone, especially since “they took a stand” and “resorted to Bucharest authorities”. She couldn’t say exactly what it is the principal has against them, just that “it’s the way he’s wired”. He doesn’t like children the way the former principal did, he’s just keeping the paperwork in order and no longer returns her greetings.
With Cristina Radu, the school librarian and county councilor, she says it started because her daughter has hearing loss (she wears a permanent hearing aid), and children with hearing loss “do not receive as much support as the ones with ADHD”. Radu says she decided against getting a certificate of handicap or school guidance for the girl precisely because it alone could “weigh her down in life”, that she doesn’t have anything against the Rizoiu family personally, and she believes the boy would do better in a smaller group.
Conspiracies, accusations and personal convictions are looped into the arguments each camp is building every passing day. The principal is certain that the DGASPC didn’t take any action because Rodica Rizoiu is employed there. The mother is certain the school gave Marius a schedule of three daily classes in the fall precisely so that he’d have enough absences to be expelled. Some of the parents wonder if there’s a connection between the NGO’s involvement and the fact that the family got a new Dacia Logan. When we asked her about this, the mother laughed and said that she expected as much. She took out a black file with the invoices and the payment schedule for the car: a five-year lease with a down payment of 9,000 RON they’d put together between a loan of 1,800 RON and their summer savings. They learned to hold on to their money, and to eat only from what they produce: they have pigs, sheep, goats, a cow, turkeys, a greenhouse with tomatoes and cucumbers, and just the two of them do all the work in the countryside.
The way Marius’s case was handled by the responsible adults and institutions shows, on the one hand, the inability and incompetence within the educational system to truly integrate students with special education needs and, on the other, a huge, painful lack of real communication in a ring with no referee.
Neither the mother, nor the school, nor the other parents take any of the blame. What’s more, the principal even boasts that theirs is one of the best schools “for the job”, in terms of the integration of students with special educational needs. In 2013–2015, they were part of a European-financed project on the topic of diverse opportunities for students with special needs. The 42,000 Euros were used to share experiences with their partner-schools in Turkey, to have celebrations and to make mărțișoare (small trinkets, pins and bracelets made traditionally in the Balkan region, given to women in celebration of the beginning of spring) with children at a special needs school in Argeș county.
The Ministries of Labor and Education, which were examining the case in Pitești one week after the protest, submitted a joint statement condemning the “attitudes of intolerance and discrimination” related to Marius’s case, and said they will organize more inclusive educational courses for teachers.
The law stipulates that, based on the school guidance certificate and according to their needs, students with SEN have the right to an adapted curriculum (simplified lesson content, separate evaluations), to an assistant teacher (who should be working in the classroom with teachers specialized in adapted teaching methods, and the gaps in lesson content should not be filled in just one hour per week, which is what happens in reality) and to psychological assistance, if needed. All this, including the modified content of every lesson, is to be recorded in a Personalized Intervention Plan (PIP) made by the school. And since last year, students with SEN also receive a daily stipend of 16.60 RON and money for school supplies, clothing and travel: between 498 and 844 RON per year.
Since arriving at his current school, Marius had simplified lessons; he also had an assistant teacher for one hour per week, with whom he worked on lessons he needed help with, and he had a psychologist from DGASPC. In spite of this, the situation in his class turned dramatic in September and his mother could not see any improvements after psychological counseling. Moreover, the establishment of the “inclusion committee”, which decided that Marius would only attend three classes every day and be practically guarded by an adult, was, if not abusive, at least “abrupt”, says Augustina Ene. “There’s no such thing, we don’t have the legal framework [for such a committee]”. They tried to deal with the conflict and nothing more, without any real interest for the child, she says, and the measure was taken without consideration for Marius’s psychological and educational re-evaluation, without being written down in the PIP, the only document which establishes what a student with special needs does, and doesn’t do, at school.
After the protest, Ene started counseling sessions with Marius and, every few weeks, with each of the parents. She sought a way to also include him in a personal development group, so he could learn how to relate with other kids his age, but there’s no such thing in Pitești. She also met with school teachers, with the other parents, with Marius’s classmates, and in the second semester she wants to meet with them individually. So far, she’s the only specialist who has spoken with everyone involved, and she’s the only one they all seem to trust, Marius’s family as well as the others.
From November until the end of the first semester, following her own evaluation and the diagnoses from the Obregia Psychiatric Hospital: borderline intelligence, behavioral problems, Ene established, through the PIP, that Marius will still come to three classes per day, accompanied by one of the parents, only for him to feel safe in the classroom.
Although the mother was determined to no longer stand in the hallway, Ene convinced her that it’s for Marius’s own good. Not to infringe on him, but for him to be offered the best education available to him, she says. “If a child simply cannot do it, why do you ask them to sit in class for six hours? Then why do they give him the [school guidance] certificate?” Adaptation means modifications to the curriculum, not only the schedule, in a responsible way, and not in the way of “I, the school, want this”.
Hăloiu-Richardson, the behavioral analyst, says that what should have happened is, first, group therapy, because Marius’s classmates still don’t know what they’ve done wrong and that, in turn, they will have their own kids and raise them in just this spirit: “Stay away from people with disabilities, look what happened to me”. And second, the system must pay for a special caretaker to help him integrate at school, to go out with him in the hall when necessary, or to extend classroom hours if he’s ready — not the mother, not the librarian, not the head of the parents’ association. There are not many such caretakers in the country and those who exist get paid 20–25 RON per hour, she says , money that comes from the parents.
It was not until the end of the year that the Ministry of Education introduced the legislative concept of a “facilitator” (a parent or specialist), but it is unclear who will pay them, or if they’ll be paid at all. It is, rather, a way of requiring schools to accept caretakers into the classroom, as enough of them do not. But, even if this is changed after the protest, and even if there are mothers like Rodica Rizoiu standing in the hall at the school in Pitești, it must be the school that provides an inclusive education, not the family, because neither the parents protesting, nor Marius’s parents know how; they cannot do more, nor should they have to. Inclusion means that you prepare the child for the environment, and inclusion means you slightly adapt the environment for the child to be successful. The one cannot exist without the other.
The case shows us once again that, in our country, inclusion, empathy and acceptance are earned in a courtroom, in meetings or through rulings, when they should be cultivated and practiced by each and every generation. When this doesn’t happen, it should come as no surprise that these baseless concepts are scattered in the wind when a “Marius” comes along and that thirty 13-year-old kids become victims of the system and their protective parents.
A few days after the beginning of the second semester, the situation in Pitești was calm, but nowhere near resolved. On February 16th, while Marius was in his second class with an assistant teacher (now he works with her for two hours, instead of one), his mother was running to the bank to make a car payment and to buy a jacket, then she hurried to meet him outside the classroom. The boy came out with an unbuttoned jacket, backpack over one shoulder and the vest of his school uniform sitting slightly crooked, holding a math exercise sheet with radical equations, the latest challenge in his life.
Two students left the class after the protest, and a new one joined from the other group. The parents of the 29 students are still waiting for the Prosecutor to come to a decision regarding the criminal investigation, and they have dropped their case against the inspectorate, for the moment. The principal and the school psychologist were questioned at the Council for Combating Discrimination, but there is no verdict as of yet.
Hăloiu-Richardson is convinced that there’s no chance for inclusion where he’s at, and that Marius should go to another school. Ene says he is accepted in the classroom, but the children don’t interact with him. Even the parents of the 29 students now believe that he faces more discrimination. But Marius doesn’t want to hear from them. He wants to prove that their protest was a mistake and that he’s not “as bad and sneaky as they say. I only want to go to classes and be like all the others”.
The names of the students in the article have been changed by the reporter in order to protect their identities.
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