Nenad M. claims that a false diagnosis forced him to attend a school for children with special needs. Activists say his is not an isolated case - and that the entire special-needs education system needs revamping.
Nenad M. was first determined to have special needs when he started school in Bavaria in 2005. Back then he hardly spoke any German, as his family had communicated in Romani at home. In 2008, they moved to the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In NRW, Nenad was again evaluated as needing special developmental support.
He told his teachers that he did not have a mental disability and kept asking his teachers to transfer to a standardized school, but, instead, Nenad was kept at a school for students with disabilities until he was 17 years old.
Now 20 and attending a vocational school, Nenad has taken the issue to court. He is suing the state of NRW for 38,000 euros ($40,000), citing missed educational opportunities. Had he been allowed to attend a standardized school, Nenad contends, he could have graduated from the nonuniversity track at 16, started vocational training and already been earning money at this stage in his life. His attorney estimates his financial losses at about 18,000 euros.
The other 20,000 euros are damages. Nenad's attorney says the official incompetence has given the plaintiff a case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The regional court in Cologne did not render a verdict on Tuesday. The judges asked Nenad to bring in report cards and other papers. A court spokeswoman told the news agency epd that the tribune appeared skeptical as to whether he could prove that he would definitely have graduated at 16 had he attended a different school.
The state Education Ministry refused to comment on an ongoing trial.
The case ties into the issue of inclusion at German schools. Through this concept children with and without disabilities share a classroom. The idea is that all children benefit from attending school together.
"Students with disabilities profit from being in a normal environment that prepares them for real life," said Ingrid Gerber, of the NRW chapter of the pro-inclusion group Learning Together, Living Together. "Students without disabilities learn social skills and how to interact with children who are different from them."
Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, parents in NRW have been able to choose whether to send their children to special-needs schools. The state law, however, came into effect just after Nenad finished his education.
Parents are still not given a real choice, Gerber said. Though inclusion has many advocates, problems often come from a lack of funding for additional personnel and proper training for teachers to deal with new situations. That's why, Gerber said, parents often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They don't want to send their children to separate special-needs schools. But schools with the "inclusion" label might not promise high-quality education.
As Nenad contends that his problems began with a false diagnosis, his case has little to do with inclusion. Students are supposed to be evaluated annually to see whether continued support is needed in areas such as mental and emotional development and with physical disabilities like impaired motor skills or eyesight.
Those evaluations have also been criticized. Gerber, for example, claims that the evaluators merely have to fill out a two-page form that is not very detailed.
Gerber noted that the people who conduct the evaluations usually work at the schools the children attend. Special-needs schools get assigned funding and teacher positions based on their number of students.
"The principal filling out the form knows: 'If I categorize this student as no longer needing support, he will leave the school,'" Gerber said. "And that could mean the school would lose a teacher or would even have to shut down."
In Nenad's case, the court now has to set a date for the continuation of the trial, when both he and the school will provide additional information.