Feds investigate after Park City parent says school district discriminated against disabled son

The Park City School District was previously investigated for its handling of student reports of racial, antisemitic and sexual harassment.

Park City The first grader’s bullying started last fall, around the beginning of the school year, his parents say.

He was at a local park when his mother first overheard other schoolchildren “calling him weirdo and things like that,” the boy’s father, Karl Persson, said.

His mother reached out to staff at Jeremy Ranch Elementary to let them know, but nothing happened, the father said.

About a week later, the school’s dean of students, Alane Gaspari, called the boy’s parents to inform them that another student reportedly choked their son at school, Persson said. The next day, the father emailed a number of school administrators and Park City School District officials, noting his concerns. He requested that the other student have no contact with his son.

“I got a nice email from the superintendent, [saying] that we take bullying seriously, we’re going to do all this stuff,” Persson said. But he said again, “nothing really happened.”

The parents ultimately filed a complaint in October with the U.S Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the Park City School District failed to adequately investigate the bullying allegations and protect their son.

Their son has a disability and is on an Individualized Education Program, a learning plan designed for students with disabilities, Persson said. The Salt Lake Tribune verified his enrollment at the school but is not naming the son or disclosing his disability in an effort to protect his educational privacy.

The federal office opened an investigation into the Persson family complaint in November to determine whether the alleged harassment has “negatively affected his receipt of a free appropriate public education,” which is a right under the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

That happened as federal civil rights investigators continued to assess another Park City School District case, in which they ultimately found the district repeatedly failed to adequately respond to multiple student reports of racial, antisemitic and sexual harassment, according to a federal agreement the district entered into in March.

Father accuses district of ‘subtle retaliation’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Park City School District offices in Park City.

The parents also reached out to the Summit County attorney’s office in late November to investigate their son’s treatment.

An investigative report from the office, which Persson provided to The Tribune, mentions the alleged incident at the local park, as well as the choking allegation, along with other alleged confrontations: one where another student was accused of kicking their son, and another where their son had “been hit so hard that he could not see,” the report states.

No charges were filed as a result of the county attorney’s office investigation, which stretched into January, Persson said. The father said he was told that the evidence “didn’t rise to the level necessary for them to proceed,” but that prosecutors were “critical about the school’s handling and not involving School Resource Officers.”

One investigative report does state that, according to an interview with the school’s principal, Shawn Kuennen, their son and a student accused of bullying the boy were moved into different classes. The county attorney’s office declined to comment on the investigation.

As the federal civil rights investigation proceeded though, Persson said he believes the school officials also engaged in “subtle retaliation” against the parents after they submitted their complaint.

That alleged retaliation involved frequent calls to the parents, where the parents said their son was “pointed out” in certain altercations while other students were not. Their son was also described as an “instigator,” Persson said.

September emails between the school’s dean of students, district Superintendent Jill Gildea, and the district’s director of special education, Jaclyn Knapp — which Persson obtained through a public records request — also stated there was no choking involved, despite the dean initially informing the parents about the alleged choking altercation. Persson believes this was a district attempt to “cover things up.”

The alleged retaliation is what prompted the parents to file a second complaint with the civil right’s office, in which they asserted that the district is punishing students with protected disabilities more severely than other students.

District spokesperson Heidi Matthews said in a statement that the district “upholds strict privacy protocols during all investigations to protect involved parties,” and therefore declined to comment on the situation.

However, she said district officials “strongly refute allegations of retaliation by our staff.”

“We adhere to strict policies that safeguard the rights of parents to raise concerns and file complaints without fear of repercussions,” she wrote. “This is essential to ensuring the well-being and fair treatment of all students.”

The case attorney with the Office for Civil Rights did not respond to a request for comment, but Persson said the office has received the second complaint and planned to bring it to the district for mediation. The mediation process hadn’t started as of early June, Persson said.

A ‘laissez-faire’ approach to bullying

Persson said he and other parents at his school feel that when it comes to violent altercations, school staff and administrators don’t do enough to investigate.

“They have this sort of laissez-faire approach to bullying that’s hurt kids such as my son, and others too,” Persson argued. “And until that changes, this is going to keep perpetuating.”

In a 2021 editorial in the Park Record written by Jeremy Ranch parent Sarah Crockett, the mother said her 8-year-old son had been bullied several times at the school, despite the district enforcing a “zero-tolerance” bullying policy.

Crockett alleged in an email to The Tribune in April that her son had been subjected to “weekly violence” and what she believed was “weekly mismanagement on the part of the administration.”

“My concern heightened when I noticed a meaningful shift in my son’s demeanor, where for the first time, he expressed fear of going to school and was displaying low morale and energy regularly,” Crockett wrote in her editorial.

In a separate district statement, Matthews wrote that Jeremy Ranch Elementary, in compliance with FERPA, “is responsible for safeguarding the confidentiality of minors and basing actions on verified facts rather than rumors.”

“The District is updating policies to clearly define consequences for student behaviors, ensuring transparency in disciplinary actions for elementary-aged students,” she added. “We firmly deny any allegations against our staff, who adhere strictly to district policies to guarantee the welfare and equitable treatment of all students.”

District previously investigated for harassment

In March, the Office for Civil Rights found that the district did not adequately respond to harassment — specifically toward Black, Asian and Jewish students — at three Park City schools: Ecker Hill Middle School, Treasure Mountain Junior High and Park City High School.

“The district’s responses to repeated harassment … including slurs, threats, name-calling, gestures, symbols, and assaults, among other actions that negatively affected their access to education — did not meet the district’s federal civil rights obligations,” a news release stated.

The federal findings also noted that the district failed to adequately respond to sexual harassment allegations, including a finding that the district’s Title IX coordinator — who is supposed to oversee sex-based harassment complaints — did not regularly inform students of their right to submit formal complaints.

The district ultimately entered into an agreement with the Office for Civil Rights after that investigation. One requirement: The district must report to the office how it handles all harassment complaints throughout the 2024-2025 and 2025-2026 school years.

District officials also agreed to create plans to educate students and parents on how to report harassment; train all its employees on Title IX policies, which protect people from sex-based discrimination; and ensure that the district complies with those policies through its Title IX coordinator.