PCSD responds to anti-Semitic incidents
Teachers, administrators work with ADL to teach tolerance
March 3, 2017
Park City's Jewish community has not been immune from the nationwide uptick in cultural tensions since the presidential election. In addition to heightened fears among immigrants and Muslims, and a rash of threats and incidents at Jewish community centers around the country, there have been recent reports of anti-Semitic incidents affecting students in the Park City School District.
According to Park City resident Bari Nan Rothchild, who is a member of Temple Har Shalom in Park City, there have been sporadic cases of verbal slurs at the schools over the last few years, but they escalated over the last two months.
"Children in Park City come home and report incidents of anti-Semitic comments directed at them in their schools. A place they are told, every day, is a safe community for them. They do not feel safe," Rothchild wrote in a letter to the editor.
In mid-February, a series of incidents at a local middle school prompted the temple to alert school district officials and to call on the Salt Lake chapter of the Anti-Defamation League for advice. On Feb. 12, a representative from the ADL visited with families at Temple Har Shalom and the next day met with administrators in the school district.
Temple Har Shalom Rabbi David Levinsky said he was impressed with the school district's response.
"Superintendent Ember Conley has been fantastic. Their approach was that it had to be addressed immediately and strongly," he said.
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At the same time, Levinsky cautioned against overreacting, saying that there had been just "a handful" of incidents.
"There are other populations in our community that are much more vulnerable right now and we don't want to take attention away from that," he said, referring to concerns among local immigrants regarding changes in immigration laws and enforcement.
Levinsky said he was more inclined to attribute the epithets reported by parents and students to adolescent boundary-pushing and social media than to any deep-seated leanings toward white supremacy.
But, there is a possibility that verbal name-calling can escalate.
"The concern is whether that will internalize into real hate. At what point does it translate into action," he asked.
Levinsky said the best remedy is effective diversity training, and the ADL and school district's efforts seemed to have made a difference.
According to Superintendent Conley, although the incidents were isolated, "given the national climate, people are very sensitive and, with that, we wanted to be very proactive."
She said school administrators talked with the students who were involved and their parents. They also distributed flyers to all of the students explaining "what is acceptable and what is not acceptable."
Conley said administrators from Ecker Hill Middle School, Treasure Mountain Junior High, the Learning Center and Park City High School met with the ADL to talk about how to respond. Staff members have also have participated in previous diversity training programs.
"I also want to stress that it is the community's responsibility to model appropriate language and to teach our children tolerance and acceptance of other cultures, beliefs and religions. We will continue to encourage those ideas in our classrooms," Conley added.
Miriam Eatchel, president of Temple Har Shalom's Board of Directors, said that earlier this year she received numerous reports of name-calling and epithets like "Heil Hitler" spoken at one of the schools, along with anti-Semitic graffiti in a nearby neighborhood.
"It was gut-wrenching, not just for the Jewish kids, but the non-Jewish kids were upset too," she said.
To help families respond, the temple held a dinner and discussion with a representative from the Anti-Defamation League and 100 people attended.
"The ADL did some very moving things … They asked people to stand up if they had heard a racist joke (not just about Judaism) and it was a punch in the stomach to see how many stood up," Eatchel said.
While it is "sad to see this happening" Eatchel said she, too, was pleased with the school district's response and hopes the effort to identify and halt hate speech will help other vulnerable groups as well.
"We need to continue to be vigilant. It is better but not gone," she said.