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Federal investigation finds over 180 harassment incidents in Park City School District, parents disappointed with communication

The Park City School District signed an agreement to resolve federal discrimination and harassment violations after the U.S. Office for Civil Rights started investigating seven harassment complaints filed against the district last year.
The Park City School District signed an agreement to resolve federal discrimination and harassment violations after the U.S. Office for Civil Rights started investigating seven harassment complaints filed against the district last year.

The Park City School District has signed an agreement to resolve a federal discrimination and harassment investigation, and some parents are disappointed with the district's response. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and disability. In the spring of 2023, it opened an investigation into seven harassment complaints filed against the Park City School District.

However, over the course of the investigation, the federal agency found more than 180 reported incidents of student-to-student harassment from 2021 to 2023. And the OCR said there could actually be more unknown incidents because of the district’s “inconsistent maintenance of relevant records.” The incidents were reported at Ecker Hill Middle School, Treasure Mountain Junior High School and Park City High School.

The investigation found the harassment based on protected classes was severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile environment for some students and limit their access to education.

Further, while the OCR only investigated harassment at the above three schools, the office also reports there is evidence of student-to-student harassment based on race and sex at the district's four elementary schools.

During the investigation, the OCR reviewed a “voluminous” number of emails using 58 keywords including “Nazi,” “racism,” “sexual harassment,” etc, thousands of pages of district harassment records and the district’s harassment and student discipline policies and procedures. The OCR also received 128 surveys from employees at the three schools and interviewed a total of 84 current and former district employees, parents and students.

Harassment based on race, national origin, sex and disability

Documented incidents based on race and national origin included students saying and writing racial slurs against Black and Asian students, and students yelling “I hate Mexicans” at Hispanic students. There were also cases of students saying or writing “I hate the Jews,” “Hitler sent me here to kill you” and drawing swastikas.

The survey to staff found over 60% of employees were aware students were engaged in racially or ethnically offensive conduct and 43% said they were aware of antisemitic conduct. A review of Park City School District Board of Education meetings found one teacher told the board “he has documented over 60 cases” of alleged harassment based on race and “a number of incidents were brought to the district and not dealt with or swept under the rug.”

Documented incidents of student-to-student sexual harassment included sexual assault, threats of sexual assault and rape and using LGBTQ+ slurs.

Over 31% of employees who took the OCR survey said they were aware of students engaging in sexual harassment. Some employees reported a student left the district because of it.

Documented incidents against students with disabilities included the use of slurs and referring to them “in a disparaging manner.”

The emailed survey found 24% of employees were aware of students bullying or harassing others on the basis of disability. Further, the district told the OCR there were no reports of disability harassment at Park City High. However, the Office for Civil Rights found multiple instances through its investigation.

District and school response to harassment

The OCR found the district handled some cases of harassment appropriately, but not others. The agency reports most employees interviewed didn’t know what the district had done in response to student-to-student harassment, and a handful reported the district and school had not done enough to address harassment. The OCR also found record-keeping for the incidents varied by school administrator, which is why more harassment incidents could exist but remain unknown.

“We need to do a better job of keeping records internally. That's an awesome takeaway for us that we need to have better documentation and systems,” District Board President Andrew Caplan said. “The other one was, we need to be very clear to the community and to the students what the proper escalation is of each consequence.”

As far as training on preventing discrimination and harassment, an employee serving as Title IX Coordinator for the district, among other duties, told the federal agency no Title IX matters were referred to her. She reported there were three monthly school administrator meetings dealing with harassment and one parent seminar. However, no interviewees reported these when asked about training.

“Seeing all of those incidents, and all of those anecdotes, from interviews with educators, saying that they didn't have the tools that they didn't have training, or if training happened, they didn't remember it was entirely disappointing. It was so upsetting,” said Bari Nan Rothchild, a parent with students in the district.

Ecker Hill documented a total of 122 incidents of harassment over the two years. Caplan attributed some of the behavior to the age of the children.

“Kids in those ages have a lot of kind of learning to do, and a lot of maturing to do, and they tend to be ones who are pushing the boundaries, you know, for better or worse, in discovering who they are as people,” he said.

From 2021 to 2023, the principal at Ecker Hill sent multiple mass emails noting students were using “unkind, highly offensive, or inappropriate words, phrases, and slurs.” Scott van Hartesvelt has a child at the school and said he found the first email ambiguous. However, the second email was more explicit and mentioned racist and bigoted behavior.

“I talked to my daughter and showed her some of the things that were being said. I said, ‘Are you aware of this?’ She said, ‘Absolutely,’” van Hartesvelt said. “I said, ‘Is this going on all the time?’ She said, ‘Absolutely.’ ‘Are the teachers and administrators aware of this?’ She said, ‘Yeah, they all know.’ I said, ‘Is it everybody?’ She said, ‘No, it's just a handful of kids.’ ‘Well do the administrators and teachers know who those kids are?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, everybody knows who they are and everybody's terrified of them.’”

This investigation comes on top of a state audit which found the district had an achievement gap for students of different racial and ethnic groups.

Parent reactions

Van Hartesvelt said he was alarmed at the lack of communication he received from schools and the district. He also said Superintendent Jill Gildea's letter outlining steps the district will take was too ambiguous.

“The school district needs to understand that they just don't have credibility with parents right now, because of the way that this process has gone on, because of the fact that they haven't contextualized any of this stuff,” van Hartesvelt said.

One parent whose child was a victim of race-based harassment and discrimination spoke to KPCW on the condition of anonymity. They said the district wasn’t forthcoming with information even when the harassment was happening. The parent said they were also disappointed the district didn’t initially share information from the investigation. The district did post a link to the investigation March 21.

Rothchild said her two children have experienced antisemitism at school. She said it took her oldest son months to tell her about harassment from a teacher.

“Once he did, and once action started to be taken, and I will credit the school district with taking action in that instance, lots of other people came out of the woodwork to say, ‘Oh, my child witnessed another child being harassed,’” she said.

Rothchild was also disappointed with how the district communicated with parents about the federal agreement. She expressed frustration the initial email to parents lacked information about the agreement, only linking to it. After clicking that link, parents would have to click three more links to get the information related to the investigation, the agreement and the full statement from the superintendent.

“In terms of the way the report’s been handled, I'm really frustrated by it,” Rothchild said. “Because there has been no real sense of urgency about making sure parents understand what's going on.”

Parents KPCW spoke with say they hope the district will be more transparent in disclosing harassment incidents in the future.

According to the joint resolution between the Park City School District and the Office for Civil Rights, the district must revise harassment policies and procedures, provide individual remedies for students and implement a plan to educate students and parents on reporting harassment among other changes.

The federal agency will monitor the district's progress until it complies with the terms of the agreement, which is expected to be the summer of 2026.

The district has created a landing page on its website with information about the Office of Civil Rights investigation and steps the district will take to come into compliance.

The district did not immediately respond to requests for comment.