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A community issue: bullying and harassment in Park City schools

Treasure Mountain Junior High.
Park City School District
Treasure Mountain Junior High.

A Treasure Mountain Junior High student is speaking out about what she calls a recent antisemitic incident in school. It happened one day after the findings of a civil rights investigation into the district were released.

On March 21, a Jewish Treasure Mountain Junior High student said she experienced an act of antisemitism during a class. The student, who asked to remain anonymous, said she overheard another student say he planned to draw a swastika in his notebook.

“He thought it would be funny if he left it for the next class open, that they’d find it," she said. "And then I heard him say that he wanted all Jews dead or along the lines of that. So I got up and I left class.”

The student said she immediately reported the incident to school counselors. Her dad told KPCW they contacted assistant principal Benjamin Mueller who shared that four students involved in the incident were pulled from class and interviewed. According to the dad, Mueller found multiple swastikas drawn on various items in the students’ backpacks, including a large swastika on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper. The dad said Mueller also confirmed a student said something like, “we have to kill all Jews.” The next day seven more people were interviewed.

The student said she was concerned for her safety after the incident.

“I believe that school should be a place you feel safe when learning and I did not feel safe. I felt targeted,” she said.

In a statement, the Park City School District said it can’t comment on the investigation because it involves minors. Previously, the district has also said it can’t disclose how students are disciplined for harassment.

However, this is not an isolated incident. A federal investigation released March 20 found over 180 incidents of harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex and disability in the Park City School District. Of those incidents, 27 involved antisemitism with nine occurring at Treasure Mountain. The U.S. Office for Civil Rights reported there could be more unknown incidents of harassment as the district had “inconsistent maintenance of relevant records.”

Scott van Hartesvelt is a parent in the Park City School District. After the federal investigation was released at the end of March, he told KPCW he’d like to see the district focus more on education to prevent discrimination and harassment.

“Why are specific words so loaded with hate, and bigotry tied to, you know, history? I think if you simply provided more of that information and empowered teachers to provide more of that information to our kids, the behavior would self-correct in a lot of cases,” he said.

The Jewish student said Treasure Mountain is working on the education aspect. Following the March 21 incident, the student said they learned about antisemitism in their weekly advisory class. However, it didn’t go as planned.

“What I've heard from other advisory classes, people were laughing during them and not paying attention, and it wasn't taken as seriously as it should be taken,” the Jewish student said.

Van Hartesvelt agrees schools should be involved but to effect change, parents must share in that responsibility.

“From a parent's perspective, I think we all are accountable to the outcome here. And we all need to participate in it,” he said.

Bari Nan Rothchild, another parent in the district, previously told KPCW the community has a stake in reducing bullying and harassment in schools. She said the Park City School District has not worked hard enough to engage the community to work on solutions.

“The problems of the community show up at the school door," Rothchild said. "So how are we as a school and we as parents going to engage the community in the conversation? And there’s been none of that.”

The Jewish student’s dad believes part of the issue in addressing bullying and harassment may be a fear of retribution. He said district employees might face threats of legal action if they implement more serious consequences for an incident like this or others. Some Park City families, he noted, have ample resources to draw out a court battle. The dad said regardless of the potential outcome, the district would have to spend time, money and resources to defend itself in court.

A district spokesperson said it will share more detailed information and updates on how it complies with the Office for Civil Rights’ regulations in the future.

KPCW made repeated requests for interviews with Treasure Mountain Junior High School principal Caleb Fine.

In an email, Fine said he disputes the characterization of events the student and parent provided to KPCW and said he could not provide further information due to student privacy concerns and federal regulations.

Fine offered to provide general information but only if KPCW guaranteed in advance to air the interview in its entirety. It is against KPCW’s policy to make such guarantees. KPCW invited Fine to the Local News Hour to discuss the incident and awaits his response.

Park City School District's statement: 

“Each of our Park City School District school sites and district departments are committed to creating a safe and inclusive environment for each of our students. We appreciate the community's understanding of the need to protect the privacy of all students aligned to the Federal Family Educational Right to Privacy Act. The District is unable to comment on individual investigations or results of investigations as these are often related to minor children within the education environment.

"PCSD is actively working on updating its public facing policies regarding discrimination, harassment, and outlining consequences of this type of behavior as well as ensuring supportive measures are available to any impacted student.

"Given the potential for misconceptions arising from incomplete information or out-of-context statements, we support our principal's commitment to provide any interview messaging in its entirety.

"Detailed information and updates related to overall action steps aligned to the OCR Resolution will be shared in upcoming communications with our families. For current policies and more information, please visit our school websites.”