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16-year-old’s account of anti-Semitism causes a stir in Prince Edward County

Talia Epstein says she’s experienced multiple incidents of anti-Semitism at her school and is discouraged that more is not being done to address the problem. Photo courtesy of Talia Epstein

By Allen Steinberg [1]

PICTON – A 16-year-old Picton high-school student says she’s been the victim of anti-Semitic behaviour in Prince Edward County for years.

Talia Epstein says she has experienced swastikas [2] drawn on her desk and on classroom whiteboards, racial slurs, and taunts saying her family should move elsewhere.

She went public with her story early this month, writing a lengthy account of what she’d experienced and posting copies around her school, Prince Edward Collegiate Institute [3]. They were taken down by a vice-principal within 15 minutes, she told QNet News last week.

In response, her father, Lenny Epstein, posted her account on Facebook [4] last Monday. It gathered heaps of attention and has been widely shared and discussed.

My daughter Talia wrote the piece below and I want to share it with you on social media because it’s too long for the…

Posted by Lenny Epstein [5] on Monday, September 16, 2019 [4]

In her story, Talia says she’s been treated like an outsider in Prince Edward County, a community she’s lived in most of her life. The Epsteins moved to Picton from Kingston when she was seven years old.

The family are practising Jews, and she says schoolmates ridicule her based on that fact alone. In her first year of high school, she said, a supply teacher taking attendance asked her whether her last name was “German or Jewish,” and when she replied that it was the latter, she said, “I was getting the most hostile looks (from other students) throughout the rest of that class. The next day I went into my English class and someone had drawn a swastika on my desk.”

The supply teacher apologized to her immediately after class, she said.

Talia Epstein took this photo of a swastika – the emblem of the German Nazis – chalked onto the parking lot of her school, Prince Edward Collegiate Institute, two years ago. Photo courtesy of Talia Epstein

Later in that school year she discovered another swastika, this one drawn in chalk in the school parking lot.

Epstein’s best friend, Anna Louder, 16, confirmed the swastika incidents and said they have shown up in other places. “We’ve walked into classrooms and there have been swastikas drawn onto the whiteboard. (I’m) not sure if they were intended for (Talia), but I don’t think it really matters at that point.”

Talia also experienced schoolmates throwing coins at her in the school hallways in a crude display of stereotypes about Jewish people.

“We were all standing in the hallway and a group of boys just threw coins at her,” Anna said.

Talia somehow manages to find some humour as she talks about the incident: “I must have made almost $15 from people throwing coins at me in the hallways … So I made some money that way.”

It wasn’t just at school that she experienced anti-Semitism. The account that her father shared tells what happened when she contacted a local business about its name’s similarity to a slogan used by Hitler. The business, a sign shop, is called The Vinyl Solution; Hitler called his plan for mass genocide of the Jews “the Final Solution [6].” She emailed the business’s owner, Dan Ferguson, to ask if the name was just a coincidence:

When she got no response, she took to social media.

“My friends told me to post my feelings on it to my Instagram story, because they figured someone would know the owner,” she said.

That post brought immediate backlash.

“The county is fine the way it is,” one commenter said, adding that if Talia doesn’t like it there she should leave.

Another wrote: “If you and all your little Jew friends are offended(,) kick rocks and leave the county.”

When QNet News contacted The Vinyl Solution owner Dan Ferguson Monday, he said the shop’s name has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

“I’m a vinyl sign company. I sell vinyl graphics. I sell vinyl vinyl. I want to be your vinyl solution.”

He wasn’t even aware that “the Final Solution” was a slogan used by Hitler, Ferguson said. “I had to Google it to see what ‘the Final Solution’ was. Maybe I missed that hour of history class.”

He shrugged off Talia’s emails about the name because he did not think it would become a big deal, he said: “That’s why I did not answer her back, because I thought this would be brushed aside.”

Even though the issue has blown up in recent days, Ferguson said, there is no way he will consider changing the name of his shop.

“I’m rolling on with it … I do agree that there’s a bunch of this crap that goes on in the County, but my name has nothing to do with it.”

He’d even be willing to take legal action to protect the name of his business, he said: “I’ve never talked to Talia, and I don’t plan on talking to her without talking to my lawyer first.”

The negative reaction Talia received from the community after posting about Ferguson’s shop name is what led her to “snap and write the article,” she said.

Initially, she posted copies of her long account around her school, but “our vice-principal took them all down” within 15 minutes, she said. The vice-principal “came to me at my locker and told me, ‘You need to stop putting these up. This is unacceptable.’ “

When QNet News called PECI last week to ask about that incident, a secretary said that the principal was ill and none of the vice-principals were available to speak, although she suggested calling back in a few minutes. When QNet called back, another secretary said that the vice-principals “aren’t ready to speak on this” and that comment about the case could only come from the public school board.

After Talia’s story was published on Facebook and was widely shared, including by the Facebook page People of PEC [8] and by the Wellington Times [9] newspaper, she sat down with PECI principal Earle Wright Monday to discuss ways to improve the school’s culture.

“I had some ideas that we could implement within the school,” she said Tuesday. “I mentioned maybe starting a committee that has students, staff, administration and community members on it. We talked about visibility in the school; we talked about training for the teachers.”

But she said she was discouraged by Wright’s reaction, and felt he was not as receptive or respectful as he could have been.

“His eyes got rolled a couple times at me,” she said.

“He asked for a week to think about things, so I’m giving him until next Monday.”

QNet attempted to speak with Wright on Tuesday but was told by a secretary that Wright had directed inquiries to the public school board. An email to Wright was not answered.

QNet contacted Kerry Donnell, the spokesperson for the Hastings Prince Edward District School Board [10], to ask about the vice-principal of PECI taking down Talia’s posters and about Wright’s response to her concerns about her meeting with him.

“The school board and the administration is aware of the situation,” Donnell said. “We are always supportive of hearing about student concerns and issues. The school administrator is actively engaging with students on this topic to further the positive culture and sense of inclusivity at PECI.” She declined to comment further.

Talia said it’s difficult being at school when the issues she has raised have yet to be treated with a sense of urgency.

“It’s absolutely awful. School should be a place where everyone feels comfortable and safe, and it’s absolutely not. When I’m in school, I’m on alert.”

Spreading awareness on issues such as this is key, she said. “I honestly think that education is the most important step that needs to be taken.”