EDITOR’S NOTE: Community endured long official silence after South High student arrested with gun

The South Salem High School student called her dad, upset.

She had gone to lunch and spotted several police cars in the area around the school. When she returned to school, police officers were standing at the front entrance.

Her father shared in an email his account of that call from his daughter at 12:36 p.m. Wednesday, March 1.

“She was panicked and her voice trembled,” her father wrote. “She was scared and didn’t know what to do.”

Not until hours later did the father, his family and the community learn that a 17-year-old had packed a loaded handgun into the high school. Police later reported he sent a video of himself with a gun in the school.

For hours, the family and the community were told nothing by authorities.

How could that be?

Society is generally alarmed about safety of students and staff, given the too-frequent shootings at schools across the U.S.

In Salem, rumor and social media chatter about the South Salem incident substituted for fact for hours.

To trace what happened, Salem Reporter requested public records from the Salem Police Department and the Salem-Keizer School District. The agencies released some emails and text messages. Most information remains confidential because the gun-toting teen is being prosecuted through the state’s juvenile system. Most records are off limits in such instances.

Here’s the sequence of events that available records and official comments show about the decision for when to tell the community about the South Salem incident.

In a press statement, Salem police said they responded to the high school shortly before noon on Wednesday, March 1, after a caller tipped them to the video.

No one will say where the boy was in the school at the time police arrived. He left the building, though it’s unclear if he was chased or simply walked out. Police encountered him in the school parking lot and recovered the loaded gun and a knife.

Based on the father’s note, students were aware quickly that something was up.

At Salem Reporter, we were initially alerted that there may be a “swatting” incident at a local school. That’s where someone calls in a hoax emergency report to provoke a police response. Schools in recent months have been deviled by such conduct.

One of our reporters contacted the Salem Police Department through the mandated method – an email to the public information officer, asking about the swatting tip and to “please clarify what is happening.”

The time that was sent: 12:55 p.m.

A second reporter made a similar contact with the Salem-Keizer School District media personnel.

The time: 1:06 p.m.

For hours, no one from the police or the school system responded, leaving us no way to inform the community.

Meantime, school officials decided one group of people did deserve information – the staff at the school. Within two hours of the arrest, work was underway to get word out only to South Salem High School employees.

Principal Tara Romine messaged one district official about the draft.

“I have concerns with how specific the communication is. I’m worried about student confidentiality and knowing that a lot of adults and other students saw who was involved in the situation,” she wrote.

School district officials won’t release those drafts, but text and email messages indicate that the Salem Police Department’s public information officer, Angela Hedrick, was consulted.

At 3:04 p.m., Aaron Harada, the district’s communications director, texted the principal that the message to the staff could be sent.

“Today during lunch Salem Police came to our campus to conduct an investigation. While attempting to contact the student, the student fled from the school. The student has been taken into custody by law enforcement. We are working closely with Salem PD, and as soon as details are available, we will provide them to you,” Romine’s message said.

Hedrick, despite being aware of the emergency notice to school employees, didn’t answer Salem Reporter’s inquiry for another three hours. Then, she still didn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary going on.

“No, Salem police officers did not receive swatting calls today. I do, however, have a media release coming out a little later,” she wrote at 5:53 p.m.

She gave no clue that South Salem High had faced a real threat, and didn’t address the request to “clarify what is happening.”

Through the evening, officials with the police department, school district and Marion County District Attorney’s Office worked on a press statement. The school district worked in parallel to prepare its own message to families.

At 8 p.m. – eight hours after police had responded in force – the community learned what happened. The police issued a press release and school officials notified families.

Police officials have justified their long silence that day.

They say the teen was located relatively quickly, he was taken into custody and there was no further threat. They didn’t answer how they established there was no other threat, such as another teen with another gun or weapon.

They said they had to take hours to be sure information in a press release was accurate.

“The public release of information involving criminal investigations requires the balancing of two sometimes competing interests: speed and accuracy,” Hedrick wrote. “In this instance, there was no continued threat to our community. The release of information in this case occurred after facts were verified for accuracy and reviewed with the district attorney and coordination with Salem-Keizer Public Schools.”

Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack said in his own statement to Salem Reporter, “There was no ongoing threat in this instance. Our officers and SKPS staff quickly identified the single person involved and took him into custody. Had a threat remained more information would have been shared with our community sooner.”

But his agency’s own internal directive on “News Media Procedures” advises: “A concerted effort will be made by all personnel involved to have basic information available within twenty minutes of an unusual incident.”

Parents and others questioned why there was no lockdown at the high school.

“I don’t know why lockdown protocols weren’t put in place when the admin was made aware of the situation. We need our district leaders creating a safe environment for students and staff,” one mother wrote in a note to Salem Reporter.

Nine times this school year as of Tuesday, schools in the district have been locked down, sometimes for activity outside the school campus.

Records released by the school district, however, show that five days after the South Salem incident, Crossler Middle School was locked down for about 30 minutes because of a “social media violent threat against Crossler.” Parents were notified as the lockdown lifted that “the students involved with posting the threats were identified and we are working closely with those involved to address the situation.”

Last October, North Salem High School was locked down because of a “student with knife inside classroom,” the records showed.

School district officials say circumstances at South Salem didn’t justify a lockdown.

“Police and campus safety were on site. In this case a lockdown had the risk of making a bad situation worse,” Harada explained.

But the episode was significant enough to justify an early morning meeting of the South Salem staff the next day.

“There is a lot of information swirling today about an arrest of one of our students yesterday, and it’s important you have accurate information,” Romine wrote that morning. “If you would like some emotional support or want to process this event with a caring adult, we have counselors available.”

Harada agreed the school district could have done better.

“A notification to parents, even if it was light on details, should have gone out to South Salem families much sooner,” he said.

In any police action, there are competing interests, as Hedrick says.

But a primary duty of officials is to alert the community. In this day of mass shootings, that is more critical than ever. People deserve to feel safe, and rapid assurance to citizens that any police activity is no threat should be a priority.

And this is all the more important in this day of text messages, Snapchat and TikTok. Photos of the arrested teen in handcuffs apparently were circulating pretty quickly among students.

School and police officials in Salem need to adapt to such a reality. A tidy press release carefully vetted is no substitute for a quicker yet factual announcement that can stop rumors and hearsay.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected].


Police say teen arrested for taking gun, knife into South Salem High School

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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.