Swastika, slur, dozens of other incidents prompt Jewish community to call for change in Park City schools
A swastika and a racial slur scrawled in a Jewish teacher’s classroom are only the latest of what the teacher says are more than 50 incidents of bigotry reported to him — and that number is growing. Now, a local rabbi has asked his congregation to push for district-wide solutions to what he says is an ‘endemic’ problem in Park City schools.
Park City High School teacher Josh Goldberg begins many of his early-morning social studies classes with a stretching routine to help wake groggy students. One Thursday earlier this month, during first period, a tenth grader called him over.
The student had found a swastika and racial slur inscribed on one of the upturned desks.
“Immediately I was shocked,” Goldberg said. “I believe that the work we do is sacred work, is important work. And never in my 20-plus years of teaching would I have imagined that that hate, that a symbol of hate and those hateful words, would be scrawled in my classroom. Initially, it caught me off guard. And it was a shot in the gut.”
PCHS Principal Roger Arbabi sent a letter to parents last Thursday saying swastikas and racial slurs have appeared at multiple locations across the campus in preceding weeks.
Goldberg, who chairs the PCHS social studies department, said the problem wasn’t only at the high school. He’s conducted an informal investigation into incidents of hate speech in the district. He said students don’t know where to turn, so the numbers are likely underreported, but he’s heard of problems at Ecker Hill Middle School and Treasure Mountain Junior High School, as well.
“About 50 incidents have been reported to me and I'm getting more everyday that span the gamut,” he said. “It's prejudice, it’s hate speech against LGBTQ folks, against Black folks, against Latino folks, against Jewish folks. Some of it is directed against women. So my number is at about 50, but most likely, it's twice to three times that, according to our resource officer.”
David Levinsky is the rabbi at Temple Har Shalom in the Snyderville Basin. He said his initial reaction when he heard Goldberg’s numbers was that they were low. He said the problem is “endemic” in Park City schools.
“This is a regular part of the lives of our children in the schools, including my son,” Levinsky said. “Just ongoing verbal harassment and graffiti.”
Levinsky said he reached out to the school district as a parent of a student whose community had just experienced what he said would be legally classified as a hate crime. He found the response underwhelming — what he said was a copied-and-pasted memo from Superintendent Jill Gildea and nothing from the Board of Education.
Neither the superintendent nor the Board of Education answered questions from KPCW about the situation, instead referencing prepared statements on the district’s website. Both statements decry hatred and bigotry.
The board’s statement implores the community to work together and in good faith to combat incidents of hatred.
"Let love fight hate and let’s do this together and rest assured that educating against hatred will always be a priority in Park City schools," the board's statement says.
Before that statement was released, Levinsky had already issued a call to action, asking the 400 families in the Har Shalom congregation to write to school officials and push for district-wide solutions.
He asked for two specific things: anti-bias training for students and staff members, and diversity curriculum for grades K-12. Both, he said, should be implemented by a nationally recognized organization.
District officials did not respond to questions about those proposals.
During a previous spike of antisemitism about five years ago, Levinsky said, he brought in staff from the Anti-Defamation League to train students in the temple’s after-school program how to respond to antisemetic incidents.
He said such incidents are part of daily life, and the schools weren’t acting.
“One of the most difficult parts of growing up as a minority is introducing your child to the reality that they're going to face hatred and it's going to be a part of their life,” he said.
The temple routinely has law enforcement protection, precautions that have been enhanced since the 2018 mass shooting at a temple in Pittsburgh and again after subsequent incidents of violence against the Jewish community.
Levinsky said it was important to connect local events to the broader national context of what he sees as increasing hatred and bigotry.
“One feels vulnerable. And then, when it happens, it hurts,” Levinsky said. “And there are many people who respond to that hurt by adding anger to it, and that can be productive to a degree because it inspires action and inspires trying to create change.”
Goldberg hopes this incident can be used for good. He said only positivity could lead to the solutions necessary to root out the bigotry he said had become institutionalized in Park City schools.
He said the response should be district-wide, and called for the district to hire a director of diversity or inclusion that could lead such an effort.
“I think we can use this moment as a catalyst to bring our community together, to bring the high school community, the middle schools together and rally around tolerance and love and kindness and to stamp out hate in all of its forms. That is the purpose here,” he said.
Goldberg said teachers must “teach the good.” They have a duty to their students, he said, to teach a full picture of the past in the hopes of building a better future.