More than 100 students from Cleveland High School staged a walkout Friday to protest a recent decision by Seattle Public Schools to replace the school’s principal.
Standing in front of the district’s headquarters and holding handmade signs, the students called on administrators to either reinstate Principal Catherine Brown or give them a say in who becomes the next principal of the South Seattle school.
Last week, Superintendent Brent Jones announced plans to replace Brown with Marni Campbell, principal of Robert Eagle Staff Middle School. The move was sharply criticized by students and community members, in part because of Campbell’s role in handling a 2005 alleged sexual abuse incident that resulted in a lawsuit the district settled in 2015.
On Friday morning, the district announced that Campbell had voluntarily withdrawn her name from consideration for the job. In a letter to Cleveland families, Jones said Campbell “did not want to be a distraction or hamper the future success of Cleveland students.” Campbell will continue working with the district in “another capacity yet to be determined,” Jones wrote.
In a statement following the student rally, the district directly responded to concerns raised by students about Campbell’s past handling of allegations of sexual misconduct.
“The circumstances were brought to light, a full review was completed, and the case was settled. At no time was there any finding of improper actions on the part of Dr. Campbell. We are not discussing this issue further, as it has been thoroughly and properly handled.”
Despite Campbell’s withdrawal from the Cleveland job, several students at Friday’s rally said they felt unsafe by the district’s selection of Campbell to lead the school, and wondered what other changes the district might impose without community input. Many said they worried about the unraveling of established relationships among the school community if a new principal takes Brown’s place.
Cleveland senior Lai’lani Blanchard, who walked out of school Friday, said the lack of communication from the district about the situation was “disturbing” and that she was not happy that administrators chose to bring in a new principal without asking for staff, student and family input. “It’s not right to bring in someone we don’t know,” she said.
Brown has been at Cleveland for 18 years. This is her first year as principal of the school; previously, she was assistant principal.
“She worked hard for her position,” said sophomore Andy Thach of Brown. “We all feel like she cared about the community at Cleveland.” Thach had a message for the district: “Stop trying to silence the student voice.”
According to Brown’s attorney, the district decided to terminate Brown’s contract after she shared information with families about the district ending COVID-19 contact tracing.
District administrators have also demoted Brown to a lower role, sought her reassignment to a different school, and are recommending a five-day suspension, according to Shannon McMinimee, Brown’s attorney.
The district has not confirmed Brown’s account of the situation. In Friday morning’s letter, Jones praised Brown’s impact at the school over nearly two decades, but said personnel matters are handled confidentially.
“Personnel decisions and staffing transitions occur for a variety of reasons. … My focus now is to identify the healthiest path forward for the Cleveland community,” wrote Jones.
If the district isn’t willing to keep Brown in the role, students say they want a more equitable and engaging public process to find her replacement — ideally one where students and staff are at the decision table with district leaders. Brown’s contract is slated to end June 30.
“Hopefully we can make some change and have a different way of choosing principals,” said Cleveland senior Nayely Argueta. “They don’t work with the principals like we do.”
Cleveland is an “option” school, meaning any Seattle student can attend. The school emphasizes the study of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and runs two STEM academies. There are no entrance requirements, although students are required to take four years of math and science. About 900 students are enrolled there this year.
This story has been updated to correct Andy Thach’s last name.