AN EAST SAN JOSE school district is responding to community safety concerns after a string of violent campus incidents, but teachers and parents want long-term preventive measures.

East Side Union High School District Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee has agreed to establish a school safety task force comprised of teachers, administrators, parents, students and board members to identify ways to make campuses safer districtwide. The first meeting is set for next week. The goal is to present strategies to the school board for consideration and action in December.

“The task force will provide an additional platform for our diverse community to work together on both short-term and long-term solutions,” he told San José Spotlight. “ESUHSD is committed to providing a safe and nurturing educational environment. The task force represents a significant step toward achieving this objective, ensuring that the voices of all stakeholders are heard and that meaningful actions are taken to enhance campus safety.”

In a letter to parents, Trustee Bryan Do said he’s ready to make comprehensive safety improvements at all district schools.

“I have been urging for safety improvements for years,” he said, “and I am grateful for the growing support from the concerned parents. There is much work to be done and we need the support of the parents and the community to partner with us toward a safer East Side Union High School District.”

Fights, assaults and weapons

On Sept. 20, fights broke out at James Lick High School, continuing a string of violent attacks. Teacher Michael Gatenby said on Aug. 17 eight people came on campus and assaulted a student and two staff members, following a verbal dispute between two students—with one calling for outside help. The trespassers, who arrived in two cars, fled after a school worker stopped the fight, he said. But when a teacher tried to photograph one of the car’s license plates, the driver jumped out and assaulted her, sending her to the hospital with a severe concussion.

Weeks later, seven trespassers knifed two students on the P.E. blacktop, Gatenby said, adding the students might have died had it not been for the actions of P.E. teachers.

The Coalition for Reform of East Side SJ High Schools posted the September fights on its Facebook page

“No one should fear their kids going to school. I want the school board to reinstate the school resource officers now. My question to the board is, ‘Will it take a death before you act?’”

Lynn Langdon, The Coalition for Reform of East Side SJ High Schools

Gatenby said since the August attack, parking lot gates at James Lick are closed while school is in session, additional cameras have been installed and administrators take turns manning the front of the school.

The East Side Union High School District is not the only San Jose school system that has seen an increase in violent behavior. San Jose Unified School District has also experienced a string of frightening events that led parents to form a safety task force, the Why Wait Project, after the district was slow to respond.

Lynn Langdon, a parent who is part of the The Coalition for Reform of East Side SJ High Schools, favors bringing police back on campus.

“No one should fear their kids going to school,” she told San José Spotlight. “I want the school board to reinstate the school resource officers now. My question to the board is, ‘Will it take a death before you act?’”

Deteriorating campus culture

Melony Pedigo, a recent James Lick grad, said student behavior has deteriorated, including students smoking, drinking and taking drugs in the bathroom. She said students should face consequences for their actions, such as suspension or expulsion.

Gatenby said Teresa Marquez, the district’s associate superintendent of educational services, agreed to pilot an in-house suspension program at James Lick as a response to student misbehavior. The district also plans to hire another campus monitor to supervise bathrooms and will provide additional employees in the meantime. Gatenby said the district agreed to hire substance use counselors to help students districtwide.

Mark Adams, James Lick High School teacher and site president of East Side Teachers Association, said it’s been a rough year, but he appreciates the overall sense of urgency to take action. He said the task force involving teachers and parents is an important step.

“It’s a positive development amidst all the difficulties we’ve been facing,” he said. “There’s a lot more that we need to do to make our schools safe places and better institutions.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.