State suspension law creates conflict at East San Jose school
A new state law taking effect next July will bar school expulsions or suspensions for minor offenses. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

A state law created to protect vulnerable student populations from disproportionate levels of suspension and expulsion is complicating matters for an East San Jose high school.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed Senate Bill 274 that bars willful defiance or low-level behavioral issues from suspending students in grades 6-12. The new law, which goes into effect July 1, 2024, could make it difficult for teachers at James Lick High School in the East Side Union High School District to hold some students accountable for their behavior. Teachers are asking the district to approve in-school suspensions for students who allegedly drink and smoke in the bathrooms and refuse to go to class.

The law is aimed at eliminating suspensions and expulsions for low-level behavior—such as talking back to a teacher—which disproportionately affected students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students who are homeless or in foster care and students with disabilities.

East Side Union High School District Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee said the school district is committed to ensuring a safe learning environment. He said the district has comprehensive policies to support all students and increase their sense of belonging.

“ESUHSD is prepared to implement the Senate bill due to the fact that the board and staff has already developed and implemented policies and practices aligned with (it),” he told Lucescamaray Blog.

James Lick High School teacher Michael Gatenby doesn't think it's that simple because the school has a history of students demonstrating bad behavior, including bullying and fighting on campus. Gatenby is advocating for an alternative place for misbehaving students to go at school. He said the in-house suspension name should be changed to avoid confusion.

Gatenby said students choosing not to attend class are safety concerns. Last Friday, a student showed up 55 minutes late to class intoxicated and threw up, he added.

“Ed code and this new law the governor signed … will not allow us to suspend these students,” he told Lucescamaray Blog. “But it doesn’t say anything about removing them and putting them in alternative placement. They will still … get whatever supports they need … but they can’t just be allowed to wander the halls, hang out in the quad … it just doesn’t seem safe to me.”

Gatenby said there is currently no repercussion for students refusing to attend or walk out of class, as they’re not suspendible offenses. Although he agrees data shows more students of color have been suspended and expelled in the past, he said deterrents are needed and students need to be held accountable for not following district policies.

Franklin-McKinley School District Superintendent Juan Cruz said the new law is intended to make schools implement behavioral interventions rather than suspensions. He said these students need guidance and support instead of being sent home.

“Try to do everything you can to change the behavior and keep them at school as much as you can. That is what the law requires,” he told Lucescamaray Blog, “unless it’s something very serious like if there’s a fight or there’s a safety issue.”

Gatenby said roughly 20 of about 900 students are misbehaving, but the lack of consequences affects campus culture. 

“I don’t understand what the resistance is other than the district is afraid of lawsuits because we are suspending students,” he said. “It cannot be illegal to either force students to go to class or to provide an alternate setting to make sure that they’re supervised and accounted for.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

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