Centralia High School Students Hold Walkout Due to Safety Concerns in Wake of Seattle School Shooting


Centralia High School senior Dante Higgins has had concerns about safety in his school district for several years, but when a 17-year-old was fatally shot at a high school in Seattle last week, he and other Centralia students decided it was time to raise their voices via a student walkout. 

“Since they’re addressing it (in Seattle), I feel like we should bring more awareness to it,” he told a Chronicle reporter. 

In the days following the Seattle shooting, Higgins and Centralia High School sophomore Erron Paul organized a student walkout for 11:45 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17, to voice students’ concerns regarding safety and security on campus. 

Specifically, the 10 to 20 students who participated in Thursday’s walkout expressed concerns about the lack of a security officer on campus and a lack of visible measures that could stop an active shooter. 

“We just want safety,” said junior Naomi Kassab. “We’ve got nothing against a shooter.”

The participating students also said they feel district staff aren’t addressing alleged gang activity, fights and sexual assaults that students say happen regularly in the halls and bathrooms on campus. 

In a separate protest in December 2021, Centralia High School students held a walkout in the school’s commons due to sexual assault and harassment concerns. 

“I feel like (administrators) haven’t had as good of a response as they could have,” Paul said. “We just want to be seen and heard.” 

Higgins said he has been meeting with Centralia School District administration off and on for the last two years about his safety concerns district-wide, but feels that little has been done to address them.

Since starting as Centralia High School’s principal in August, Scot Embrey said he has met with Higgins half a dozen times about his safety concerns. 

“Staff and student safety is my top priority,” Embrey told The Chronicle. 

It was out of concern for student safety that Embrey proposed a walkout alternative to Higgins on Wednesday: opening up the high school’s Performing Arts Center on Thursday for students to sit down and express their concerns directly to school administration, he said. 

“He wanted to go ahead with the walkout even though I told him it’s an unsafe way to go about this,” Embrey said. “I really had wished that he would take the venue where we’re being a little more intentional about hearing his concerns and others’ concerns, in the Performing Arts Center, so we get it right and we don’t lose the message in whatever they’re doing in front of the school.” 

Embrey personally supervised the students who protested on campus in front of the high school before walking down Borst Avenue to the district administration office. 

Students said they were told that if they left school grounds without a parent or guardian signing them out, they would be suspended and not allowed back on campus. 

“In the event that they leave campus, if that’s what they’re choosing to do … we’ll be noting it from an attendance standpoint, noting who that is,” Embrey said. “The other part is we certainly will be in contact with families, letting them know that their student has left campus and why they were doing that.” 

Higgins and Paul said they believed Embrey’s insistence that students stay on campus was an attempt to prevent their voices from being heard. 

“If you have an opinion and you know it’s right and people push back, you don’t push back, you push forward,” Higgins said. “I’m not just doing this for Centralia High School, I’m doing this for the Centralia School District because kids are our future.” 

Upon arriving at the district office, students chanted “we want safety” and called for Superintendent Lisa Grant to come outside and speak with them directly about their concerns. 

Grant, however, was out of town for a conference and was not in the building on Thursday. 

“Safety and security is a priority and we continue to work on it,” she told a Chronicle reporter on the phone Thursday afternoon. 

Specifically, the district has an open application for a security position at the high school and is seeking an applicant with law enforcement experience. 

The district has historically contracted the Centralia Police Department for a designated school resource officer (SRO), but due to ongoing staffing problems, the department is unable to provide an SRO at this time. 

“We have to cover the road first before we go to the school because we have to have the staffing to do so,” Centralia Police Chief Stacy Denham said. “But when we get our staffing back up, one of my top priorities is putting somebody back in the school.” 

The Centralia Police Department does still play a role in maintaining and strengthening the school’s security, Denham said. 

Centralia officers recently ran school administrators through the K-12 ALICE Training Program, an active shooter response training program developed by the company Navigate360. 

School staff are set to go through the training in the coming weeks, according to Grant. 

“The school paid for us to send two officers to ALICE training because that’s how important it was for them to get this training,” Denham said. 

As part of the ALICE program, officers went through Centralia school buildings to “identify anything that might be an issue for that particular building, (so) they can clean up their security,” said Denham. 

Safety and security has been a frequent topic of discussion for the Centralia School Board, Grant said. 

“We will continue to work to continue to improve safety and security, because you’re never really done,” said Grant, adding that she and the school board are “happy to address” any questions or concerns from students and parents about safety and security in Centralia schools. 

Walking with the students back to campus from the district office on Thursday, Higgins’ grandmother, Judy Anderson, expressed her pride for the students who chose to protest. 

“You should be very proud of yourselves for what you’ve done,” she told them. “You made a statement.”