Assessing threats key to Salem’s school shooting prevention

Families wait on the lawn in front of North Salem High School to pick up students around 3 p.m. Friday, May 27, just after a lockdown caused by a man seen with a gun on campus was lifted (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Salem’s police chief says an existing local system to assess threats to students – not stationing officers inside schools – is key to keeping students safe from mass shootings.

Police Chief Trevor Womack and other law enforcement and district leaders spoke to Salem Reporter about security protocols following the mass school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week that killed 19 children and two teachers.

While details of the shooting are still coming to light, authorities have confirmed that police in Uvalde stood outside the school waiting for backup, then waited in the hallway outside the classroom where the gunman was killing children for almost an hour before entering the room.

Womack said in an active shooter situation, his officers are trained to act immediately, without waiting for a SWAT team or other backup.

That’s been the case for over 20 years, said Lt. Brandon Ditto, who oversees the department’s training programs.

“Those officers are trained to move to the sound of gunfire and address the threat however we need to,” Ditto said in an interview.

Ditto said Salem police officers have been involved in leadership with the Oregon Tactical Officers Association, helping to craft training and models for responding to active shooters.

All officers receive training on active shooters during Oregon’s police academy, and Ditto said squad sergeants review incidents like Uvalde that are in the news with their officers for lessons learned.

“We just reinforce this training consistently. This is something that’s constantly at the forefront of our mind,” he said.

Officers won’t be stationed in schools

Over a dozen parents, educators and Salem residents in the past week have emailed the school board and local media calling for the district to reinstate police officers in local schools following the shooting in Texas.

Superintendent Christy Perry last year ended contracts to station officers in local schools following a push from youth activist group Latinos Unidos Siempre and other local organizations.

Perry said this week she doesn’t plan to reconsider, saying district officials instead are committed to a system designed to detect and respond to threats at schools, and maintaining partnerships with local law enforcement.

Womack said having a school resource officer is no guarantee an officer would be at the scene if a shooting took place.

Before the district ended contracts with Salem police and other local law enforcement agencies, 11 officers were assigned to the district’s 65 schools at a cost to the district of about $1 million per year. One was assigned to each of the district’s six major high schools, and the others to middle schools.

Womack said his department already has staffing challenges and wouldn’t have the resources to assign an officer to every district school. He said required trainings, vacations and needs elsewhere also would mean an officer wouldn’t be on campus all day.

“For me, it’s much more about threat assessment teams,” Womack said. “To me that’s the best way, more so than trying to have a physical presence at every school.”

The district pioneered a threat assessment system in the early 2000s in the wake of shootings at Thurston and Columbine high schools. The system is now a national model for evaluating potential violence targeting schools.

As many schools in the U.S. pursued “zero tolerance” policies, where a student bringing a weapon to school would automatically be expelled, now-retired school psychologist John van Dreal instead sought to understand the underlying reason for a student’s behavior and evaluate whether they were actually considering violence.

Assessing threats

Now, representatives from a dozen school district, local law enforcement, juvenile and behavioral health agencies sit on a student threat assessment team, said Chris Baldridge, director of safety and risk management for Salem-Keizer.

The district maintains a contract with the Keizer Police Department for a full-time detective to serve on the threat assessment team and help evaluate those risks, Baldridge said.

Local police agencies separately maintain a threat assessment team not focused on schools that looks at people in the community who may engage in targeted violence, Womack said. The district security office is looped in on any external threats that might involve a school.

School psychologist Courtenay McCarthy oversees the threat assessment team for the district and said its work is based on referrals and tips from students, school employees or parents. They’re made aware social media posts threatening schools or students who may be talking frequently about violence.

McCathy said the goal is to assess: “Do we have potential for targeted aggression or targeted violence?” and to intervene with students well before they get to the point of making a specific plan. That could mean connecting with parents, discussing whether a student has access to weapons, and providing a student who may be thinking about violence with mental health support and mentoring.

Initial assessments of risk, which may involve a brief conversation with a student, take place at the school level. Local schools have conducted 261 such assessments this year, according to data provided to Salem Reporter.

A secondary assessment can happen if a school still has concerns about safety. The district has done 63 of those assessments this year.

“What we really try to do is intervene early. So what we don’t want to do is get to the 11th hour where somebody is on their way, they are prepared to carry out an event,” McCarthy said.

Baldridge said while the numbers of assessments may sound high, they’re a sign the system is working because people are reporting concerns.

“I would actually be more concerned if we came into a year and we had zero threat assessments,” he said.

Womack said police have additional tools, including Oregon’s “red flag” law, which went into effect in 2018. That allows police, immediate family and household members to petition a state judge for an “extreme risk protection order” prohibiting a person from possessing or buying guns for one year.

That could be used if police have concerns about someone threatening a school or otherwise threatening violence.

“It authorizes police to seize weapons and it also allows for the surrender of weapons to gun dealers,” Womack said. “Thankfully, we do have that here in Oregon. So that would be one tool that we would use for that sort of threat.”

Responding to schools

The district’s response to potential threats was put to the test last week after multiple witnesses reported a man with a gun outside North Salem High School, prompting a significant police response and a level-three lockdown – the highest in the district – with students barricaded inside classrooms.

Police never found the man and no shots were fired, but the ordeal was the first time in recent memory a school has gone into a level-three lockdown, Baldridge said.

Salem police had an officer at the school within 40 seconds of a call to 911. That officer immediately searched for the suspect, Ditto said, while other officers within minutes were on the phone with callers gathering more information.

Baldridge said the district always reviews and refines its security protocols following an incident like the North Salem lockdown.

He said district leaders will debrief with police on Friday. The district is tweaking its process for communicating with police to more quickly have district incident command staff on-site so messages between law enforcement and school employees can be relayed more quickly and the school can more quickly assist law enforcement in achieving their goals.

Baldridge declined to detail changes in protocols other than communication “so that those systems can’t be beat.”

Even without officers stationed in schools, Baldridge said his office has open communication with police, with designated people he or other school administrators can call directly if they have an issue or concern.

“They just pick up the phone and they call us,” he said. “We still very much operate like a smaller community.”

School leaders emphasized that mass school shootings are tragic and too common, but still rare events, and that local schools have systems in place to respond to them.

“Schools are one of the safest places for kids to be,” McCarthy said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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