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By Julian Peeples

JUSTICE I S S LOW, but sure — this held true in April when an arbitrator overturned a wrongful suspension levied on a beloved 30-year San Jose educator.

Willow Glen High School history and AP psychology teacher Mary Jeffries defended her students from adults who came on campus without permission peddling anti-LGBTQ+ messages and starting arguments during a 2021 incident. She was punished with a five-day suspension without pay and immediately went to San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) for assistance and support.

“I was stunned when the district said five days suspension, and so was SJTA leadership,” says Jeffries. “They said it was an outrageous reaction.”

The incident began when adults from a nearby church demonstrated along the school’s perimeter, taunting students with anti-LGBTQ+ messages and using a bullhorn to amplify their homophobic speech. Their actions attracted students, who started engaging with the adults. School management said that as long as the adults stayed off campus, there was nothing they could do.

A couple days later, two of the anti- LGBTQ+ extremists returned to the school and resumed taunting and shouting at students, this time walking onto campus without permission and escalating the situation. From her second-floor classroom, Jeffries watched the situation unfold and knew she had to intervene.

“I went down because I wanted the kids to know I see them and I support them,” says Jeffries, who added that the adults were antagonizing a group of students who are LGBTQ+. “Management basically felt that we’re supposed to do nothing. If it was another group (being attacked), I don’t know that it would’ve played out that way.”

When Jeffries arrived, the situation was tense and very loud. She stood with the students and redirected the energy to keep the peace. When the bell rang, students went to class and the situation calmed without major incident, but that wasn’t the end of it for Jeffries. Despite ample video evidence captured by students, an assistant principal created his own version of what happened that day, claiming that Jeffries had shouted profanity at the extremists and put her hands on them.

This assistant principal had previously worked at a church that also adhered to anti-LGBTQ+ views, and based on his version of what had transpired, the district eventually handed down a five-day suspension to the dedicated educator who had never been disciplined in her 20 years at the school.

“The suspension was based on lies. Somebody went after me and it was political,” says Jeffries, who is an out educator. “I thought I was stopping someone who didn’t belong on campus. The district had no plan. The school had no plan. We need to stand up against hate on campus.”

SJTA rallied around Jeffries, with the local’s executive board unanimously voting to take the matter to binding arbitration.

“SJTA is committed to defending every single member against mistreatment by administrators,” says educator and SJTA site representative Michelle Robles. “This experience forces us to question whether we have a partner in district management who we can trust to treat our members fairly and justly.”

The arbitrator agreed that Jeffries was wronged by district management, specifically calling out the assistant superintendent who oversaw San Jose Unified’s $20,000 investigation for failing to adequately examine the incident. All four of management’s charges against Jeffries were thrown out by the arbitrator and she was completely exonerated.

“The taint of the investigation and subsequent discipline undermines the validity of the final decision,” the arbitrator’s report states. “Moreover, the charges simply aren’t supported by the evidence record … the district’s five-day suspension without pay is hereby rescinded.”

At a San Jose Unified School Board meeting following the arbitrator’s decision, Willow Glen High parent Leslie Gill called Jeffries a hero for her actions, and asked how the district could punish the only person who defended students during the incident.

“I was expecting her to get kudos. Mary Jeffries is the only person who stepped up and we should all be thanking her and giving her an award,” says Gill. “This district needs to do a lot more to support LGBTQ+ students and teachers.”

SJTA President Renata Sanchez spoke at the school board meeting, pointing out that the board had an opportunity to intervene and prevent Jeffries from being dragged through the experience, but failed to act.

“Our teachers spent more than $23,000 of our dues money to defend Ms. Jeffries and we were glad to do it,” Sanchez said, referring to the arbitrator’s fees. “She deserves an apology for her treatment, and this can never happen again.

Jeffries says in all her time as a SJTA member, she never anticipated she would need the union, explaining that as long as she did her job correctly, she thought it would get her through any issues. She says that without the support from SJTA and CTA legal staff, she might not have appealed the decision and just accepted the suspension.

“It was a year and a half process. I am sure I would’ve fallen down and said, ‘I’m done.’ It’s just a little too much to go up against your employer like that. Having SJTA’s support gave me confidence and strength that I was right,” Jeffries says.

“It matters so much that I have been supported by my colleagues, especially because they understand that it’s not safe right now for LGBTQ+ people.”

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