SAN JOSE — Mike Gatenby decided to go public because he felt he had nowhere else to go.
Two students had been hospitalized Aug. 17 after an on-campus stabbing in broad daylight, during school hours. It was the second major violent incident of the barely-begun school year.
The 25-year English teacher at James Lick High School turned on his camera and pleaded to the community. Clearly shaken, he said his letters to the board of trustees at San Jose’s East Side Union High School District had gone unanswered.
“Our community has always had its fair share of challenges but I’ve never experienced anything like the start of this school year,” Gatenby said in the video, posted to multiple social media feeds.
“Our school is in crisis,” he added.
The stabbing left one of the two students with life-threatening injuries, though both are now recovering. Police have not released any information publicly about arrests or potential suspects.
On the night of the stabbing, at an East Side Union board of trustees meeting, Board President Lorena Chavez and Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee said that the district would assess safety needs moving forward.
Less than two weeks before the stabbing, two carloads of people entered campus and assaulted a student, according to Gatenby and other teachers at the school.Two James Lick staff members who attempted to break up the incident were injured, including one person that was hospitalized.
After the stabbings, the district released a statement thanking students, staff, community and police for the response to the incident, and noted the availability of the school’s wellness center, which provides students with access to social workers for their mental health needs.
“At East Side Union High School District our first concern is always for the safety and well-being of our students, their families, and staff who were impacted by this event,” the statement reads. “We will continue to make resources available for James Lick students including our Wellness Centers and counseling.”
The violence, combined with other issues such as on-campus intoxication and the increase of “wanderers” who come to campus but skip out on class, has resulted in rapidly rising tensions and frustrations, according to some teachers at the school.
“What happened at James Lick was on the extreme end of what has been happening … with a frequency that has raised a lot of the concern about safety,” said English teacher Mark Adams, who is also the president of the campus chapter of the East Side Teachers Association.
Adams said many of the school’s issues has to do with a lack of accountability for students that choose not to participate. Teachers call them “wanderers,” or “roamers” — and when these students aren’t in class during scheduled time, there’s a distinct lack of supervision on campus while teachers and staff are busy in their classrooms or work stations.
Adams said he’s noticed an uptick in smoking and drinking on campus, sometimes resulting in intoxicated or hungover students in classrooms.
The problem of “wanderers” — which Adams noted is an extreme minority at the school of about 1,000 students — is a consequence of policy decisions, he said.
The school district, along with Alum Rock Union, terminated its contract with SJPD to fund school resource officers in June 2020, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic meant school campus were mostly empty.
Chris Funk, who at the time was East Side Union’s superintendent, said the law enforcement data clearly indicated that having officers on campus “does not prevent” students from misbehaving and there weren’t enough campus incidents to warrant having officers on campus.
In May 2023, two school resource officers were applauded by SJPD after arresting a student armed with a loaded and unregistered “ghost gun” on the campus of Willow Glen High School of San Jose Unified School District.
Adams noted in an interview with Bay Area News Group that while many staff members were in favor of eliminating law enforcement from campuses, it was a choice that was made in a moment in which there wasn’t much room for debate.
“It wasn’t contentious because we were all fractured — we weren’t at school,” Adams said. “We didn’t have public meetings and it was a decision of the board, almost exclusively.”
Police simply being present on campus wouldn’t be an end all, be all solution to the problems at James Lick, Adams said.
“We need a comprehensive plan. There has to be preventative measures as well,” he said. “Having a police officer on the scene should be a last resort.”
Preventative measures proposed by Adams and Gatenby included building more fencing and gates around the campus, as the recent acts of violence have taken place in areas of the school that are easily accessible to anyone. But even that isn’t a simple solution.
“It has to be done in a way that doesn’t make the school look like a prison,” Adams said. “And people have to be able to come on campus so it’s a complicated issue.”
Both Adams and Gatenby have encouraged parents with children at the school to put pressure on the district’s board of trustees to begin to implement changes to make the school safer. Many of the challenges present at the school, Gatenby said, can only be solved at the board.
“It’s clear nothing will change unless we force the district to listen,” he said.
In response to questions, East Side Union released a statement calling the recent incidents “shocking and upsetting,” and saying that in their own investigation, district officials have “not found or learned any information or evidence that violence is endemic to James Lick High School or the surrounding community.
“Responsive measures must be tailored to address any actual ongoing safety issues while maintaining an environment that’s conducive to learning and community-building, and that does not create the impression that — and does not stereotype — the school and community as places prone to violence, because they are not.”