MILAN – Imagine having to tell an autistic 13-year-old that she can’t go on a school trip because her classmates are scared to share a room with her. Adding insult to injury, imagine that the trip was a visit to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria – a trip meant to educate children about the Holocaust and, ultimately, the horrors of discrimination.
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But that’s precisely what a couple in Legnano, northern Italy, claim is happening right now.
The case, currently being investigated by the Italian Ministry of Education, triggered a media furor locally. It also led to a Jewish foundation volunteering to take the girl on a guided tour of the concentration camp instead.
Carducci junior high school in Legnano – a small town in the greater Milan area – decided to take its eighth-graders to Mauthausen in order to educate them about the Holocaust. The trip was supposed to begin last Monday. Preparations turned sour, however, when some of the pupils reportedly began complaining on WhatsApp about the presence of an autistic classmate: no one wanted to share a hotel room with her, apparently.
Dismayed and outraged, the girl’s parents said they bowed to pressure and agreed to withdraw her from the trip. At the same time, though, they sent a complaint to the Ministry of Education. “My daughter [was forced] not to take part in a trip whose purpose was educating the kids about the horrors of discrimination,” said her mother, in an interview published last week in Italian daily Corriere della Sera. (Italy’s strict privacy laws on minors prohibit the publication of the names of the girl or her parents.)
After reading the interview, Mario Venezia and Riccardo Pacifici – two representatives of the Shoah Museum Foundation, an organization in Rome promoting Holocaust education and the construction of a memorial – considered it their duty to ensure that the girl had the opportunity to visit Mauthausen if she so wished.
Pacifici, who is also the ex-president of Rome’s Jewish community, called the girl’s mother last Monday to express his solidarity. He told her the foundation would be happy to foot the bill and accompany the schoolgirl on an educational visit to the camp.
“Our job is to educate kids against prejudice and indifference. The fact that a 13-year-old was [allegedly] discriminated against in what was supposed to be an educational trip about the Holocaust is both saddening and absurd,” said Pacifici, in a telephone interview with Haaretz.
The eighth-grader’s parents thanked the foundation, but declined the offer because “they didn’t want a separate trip. They wanted their daughter to enjoy her right to travel with her classmates,” explained Pacifici.
The Ministry of Education suspended the entire trip at the eleventh hour and is currently investigating the complaint. According to Corriere della Sera, the ministry and school are currently discussing the possibility of postponing the trip to May – but with the girl included.
The families of the other pupils have denied the accusation. In a letter written on their behalf and published in Legnano’s local paper, lawyer Paola Marreddu said the girl wasn’t excluded from the trip. Instead, it claimed, the school had requested that she sleep in a separate room with a support teacher rather than with a classmate. Feeling that this was a form of discrimination, the girl’s parents refused to send her on the trip, the letter added. Haaretz was unable to reach the girl’s parents for comment.
Marreddu told Haaretz that the children who expressed concerns about sharing a room with the autistic girl did so because “they had wrongly assumed they would be responsible for taking care of her in the event she had an emergency, something no 13-year-old is prepared for.” Once they were told an adult would be responsible if the girl needed special assistance, all their concerns disappeared, Marreddu said.
“The parents have taken a conciliatory position toward the couple who claim their daughter has been discriminated against,” added Marreddu. “The priority now is to bring a sense of calm back to the classroom.”
Italy’s school system is currently grappling with accusations that bigotry is widespread within it. LEDHA, an organization that helps disabled people defend their rights, said it is currently dealing with 137 cases of disabled people suing schools for discrimination.
Earlier this month, a similar incident reportedly took place in Livorno, northwestern Italy, when an autistic 14-year-old student was excluded from a field trip without even being notified of it. It was only when he showed up to an empty classroom that the boy discovered his classmates were hiking in the Tuscan Hills.
The Shoah Museum Foundation expressed its desire to hold a talk with the children, parents and teachers in Legnano to discuss prejudice, discrimination and what the Holocaust can teach about those subjects. “It’s not up to us to judge this specific case, and we don’t want to interfere in the investigation,” said Venezia, the foundation’s president. “But perhaps this episode could be turned into a situation to further stress the importance of learning a lesson from the Holocaust, where disabled people were also killed and persecuted.
“What happened should be a reminder that educating kids about the Holocaust isn’t just showing them documents and taking trips to the death camps. It’s also about teaching them to accept and respect differences on a daily basis,” Venezia added.