‘Let’s not surrender our schools to this so-called equity’: A proposed DEI policy is dividing Park City

After months of debate, the Park City school board expects to adopt a DEI policy later this month.

During a spring spirit week, Park City High School was celebrating the various cultures of its students when one teenager yelled out.

“One of our [Latinos in Action] students heard a student — targeted at her — yell, ‘I hate all Mexicans,’” remembers senior Jose Hernandez. “That incident right there definitely put that student in a sense of shock; it was a lot of fear of not knowing what to do, not knowing what adult to turn to.”

Experiences like that are why Hernandez joined a committee developing a new educational equity policy for the Park City School District. At an April meeting, he shared that and other stories with school board members.

But even in this mountain resort town — traditionally seen as a more liberal blue spot within red conservative Utah — talk of diversity, equity and inclusion in schools has proved divisive, reflecting national polarization.

District parent Lisa Wall claimed at the meeting that the children who are most discriminated against in the district are “those who hold ideological and political beliefs different from the majority,” and objected that “freedom of speech” was not listed in the original policy draft.

“PCSD is not diverse; we cater to one group that receives a disproportionately high level of resources,” Wall said, without specifying that group. “DEI is nothing more than a modern day, Soviet-era commissar system.”

Nearly 5,000 students attend Park City schools, according to the district’s website, with just shy of three-quarters of the students identified as white. The largest minority group is Latino students, at 18.8%, and the next is multiracial students, at 5.3%.

Resident Jimmy May argued that DEI efforts often do not work — and told the board he represented a like-minded group of over 150 households who call themselves “the deplorables.”

A diversity program — which he gestured to put in air quotations — would be a “black hole” for money and resources, he said. Hiring from diverse candidate pools, as the draft policy calls for, would put people in classrooms that are not qualified to teach, he claimed.

“Let’s not surrender our schools to this so-called equity, diversity and inclusion,” May said.

Debate over the proposed policy continued at subsequent meetings, but the board will look to adopt the policy sometime this month, according to board vice president Wendy Crossland.

Board member Andrew Caplan said at a May board meeting that he recognized the discussion around the policy is a “charged conversation,” and encouraged everyone on both sides to be patient. He added that the board does hear the “fears and concerns” of those who oppose the policy.

“We’re going to work our way through that and this is going to continue to be an open dialogue,” Caplan said. “Even once it’s passed in whatever form the board decides … it’s going to be an ongoing conversation in the community.”

Park City schools are currently under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights after a parent filed a formal complaint alleging anti-Semetic and racist incidents in the district.

But the creation of an educational equity policy was already in talks since 2017, before that investigation began, according to district spokesperson Lorie Pearce, with the COVID-19 pandemic halting progress until recently.

Recognizing ‘each student’s unique background’

An updated version of the draft policy, posted on May 23, defines educational equity as “acknowledging that all students are capable of learning, and distributing resources to provide equal opportunities based upon the needs of each individual student.”

It added that equitable resources would include “funding, programs, policies, initiatives, and support that recognize each student’s unique background and school context to guarantee that all students have access to high-quality education.”

The policy would also push the district to create diverse candidate pools for hiring employees, as well as to “provide and require ongoing professional development designed to educate PCSD personnel to recognize and effectively address bias and discrimination and foster inclusion and belonging.”

Caplan said at the May board meeting that the policy is just the continuation of the district’s goal to have every child “reach their academic and social potential.”

“I think that’s an uncontroversial statement, regardless of what people’s political views are, or social views,” Caplan said.

In 104 emails to the group who drafted the policy — dubbed the Inspiring and Supporting All Student Equitably Committee — 78 supported it, with 26 people against it.

At public forums held by the district, 34 speakers supported the policy and 29 opposed it ,while 19 people wrote about their support through worksheets at the forums, with seven opposing.

Those who supported the policy noted how it aligns with the district’s mission, how it would provide a safe and welcoming community for people of all backgrounds, and that it would “provide a lens to assess educational access and opportunities for all,” said committee member and Park City High School English teacher Jacob Jobe at the May meeting.

“A lot of the folks that were for [the policy] followed that with, ‘We’d like to see this adopted quickly,’” Jobe said.

When Hernandez spoke at the April board meeting, he said the equity policy would ensure that students like him would have someone to turn to ask for help, especially when they are in situations like the one during spirit week where they don’t feel safe.

“As students, as children, we don’t always know who to turn to, and sometimes the adults in the room aren’t helpful,” he said. “I think that this policy ensures responsibility … when you are taking this into consideration, see this policy as way more than just politics.”

As for those who opposed the policy, feedback the committee received included concerns that it doesn’t have accountability metrics or a clear plan for what it will involve, and also questioned the necessity of the policy and called on the district to strictly focus on students’ academics.

An action plan and procedures for how to implement the policy will be written after the board officially adopts it, committee member and district intervention specialist Tracy Scheriff said at the May meeting.

‘It would have helped me’

Despite the community’s concerns, the policy is a good start for the district, according to Irene Yoon, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah.

It’s important to have policies that specifically mention the protections of groups like the LGBTQ+ community, different races and ethnicities, and disabilities, Yoon said, like Park City Schools did in its draft.

“A lot of policies don’t necessarily do that,” Yoon said. “If [policies] are race-neutral or LGBTQ-neutral and just don’t mention the groups, then it can be hard for people to recognize that those policies are there to serve and protect people who are marginalized.”

The draft policy defines diversity as the presence of differences in “markers of identity,” such as “race ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression and identity, religion, national origin, marital status, disability, neurodiversity, language diversity, and socio-economic status.”

Yoon said there are numerous ways to evaluate the progress of equity policies, such as tracking complaints about harassment, school climate surveys and examining teacher turnover and satisfaction.

She said she feels that legislators have been wrongly focused on trying to pass “symbolic bills,” like targeting critical race theory — something that Utah auditors found was not being taught in schools.

Instead, she said, she believes they should be fighting educational inequities such as students dealing with homelessness, poverty, and transportation and geographical disparities.

And if there aren’t leaders or teachers committed to supporting kids of diverse backgrounds, the goal of educational equity is “looking really, really difficult,” Yoon said.

“I think it takes an extraordinary amount of fortitude and bravery to be a leader or an educator who stands up for kids these days, especially kids who are in minority groups,” Yoon said. “Educators should not be fearful … because their work is stressful and because they are getting hazed and bullied by politicians and the public so much.”

A Spanish teacher who serves on the Park City policy committee said she was passionate about the proposal mainly because of how it would affect the recruitment and retention of teachers, especially teachers of color who can better help students who have similar backgrounds.

“I did not have a teacher of color in my school, and that affected me because there wasn’t much talk about equity when I was a student, and this policy would have changed my life,” Rebeca Gonzalez said at the May board meeting. “It would have helped me feel like I belonged; it would have made me feel that I was protected.”

For Yoon, educational equity means providing resources for those teachers and students of different backgrounds so that they can have a “fair start to achieve their potential.”

Equity “is not a static thing like if you check off these boxes, then you have achieved it,” Yoon said. “... It means making sure that the systems and practices and policies we have are all working towards that commitment to make sure that we are fair, that we are valuing each person’s humanity.”