Grief, ambivalence as South considers next steps for school safety

Standing against the wall in her school’s commons, Tara Romine let the tears fall down her face.

It was four days after Romine and the 2,200 students and 200 staff she oversees had endured a 90-minute lockdown prompted by a March 7 shooting involving multiple South Salem High School students.

The principal listened as Superintendent Andrea Castañeda explained that district leaders were accelerating plans to consider weapons detectors in high schools. Castañeda said she believed scanning all students for weapons offered the best chance of safety on school campuses.

Romine knows that may be true. 

She doesn’t want it to be.

“Schools are kind of this last place of innocence,” Romine said in an interview. “When we think about adding in weapons detection, there’s a little bit of … a grieving process of what that means with just our society and violence.”

Romine has been an educator for more than 15 years, over half of them at South. She began as a teacher at West Salem High School, then spent seven years as an assistant principal at South before her promotion to principal in 2022.

The aftermath of the shooting at Bush’s Pasture Park and school lockdown leave her grappling with what school in the U.S. has become. Salem is seeing increasing teenage involvement in shootings, and students are so practiced in the possibility of violence on campus that they barricade classroom doors without hesitation when an alarm tells them there may be danger in the building.

It’s not what Romine thought she’d be talking about when she got into education. When she’s asked her feelings on weapons detectors, the conflict and grief is evident on her face.

“I want schools to feel safe. I want them to feel welcoming, and that students feel like they belong here. And … I don’t know how that will be received by our community,” she said.

The school community has been Romine’s focus over the past week, ever since she received the call telling her to put the school in a lockdown.

She recounted the events of that Thursday afternoon in an interview alongside Chris Baldridge, the district’s director of safety and risk management.

Romine was on lunch duty, monitoring the school’s main lobby as students returned from South’s second lunch for fourth period, which began at 1:51 p.m.

Baldridge had just heard from police, who were responding to a shooting at Bush’s Pasture Park, which sits three blocks north of South. Many students consider it an extension of campus.

Police told Baldridge to put South on a lockdown. He called Romine immediately, and she walked into the business office and relayed the message to her office manager, who pressed the lockdown alarm on the control panel behind her desk.

The lockdown control panel in the school office at South Salem High School. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

They were still on the phone seconds later when a call came through the district radio: The shooter was inside South. That would later prove false.

“I remember asking Tara, ‘Did you hear that?’” Baldridge recounted. She hadn’t. 

He asked whoever made broadcast the alert to repeat it and got no response. McKinley Elementary’s principal, who was also on the radio, told Baldridge she’d heard the message too.

“That’s when I said ‘Go three,’” said Baldridge, a former police officer.

To his knowledge, it was only the second time in district history a school has gone into a condition 3 lockdown, reserved for an active threat inside the school. The first was at North Salem High School in May 2022 after witnesses reported seeing a man with a gun outside the school.

In the moment, Romine said her instincts from drills took over.

“I didn’t have to second guess any of my decisions or what my response was,” she said.

She remained on the phone with Baldridge and immediately headed to the spot in the school where security believed the shooter might be.

Police arrived at the school within minutes and began searching the building. Baldridge and the district security team tried to clarify what had been reported. When it became clear that the information was wrong – only potential witnesses from the shooting had returned to South – he downgraded the lockdown.

“I will always protect kids and be wrong on the backend than waver in making a decision and have a kid get hurt or killed. I won’t do that to our staff, I won’t do that to our parents,” he said. “I would much rather everyone be upset with me about making an incorrect decision and scaring kids than lose a life.”

Students and teachers spent about 20 minutes in level 3, barricading classroom doors and avoiding windows, before the threat level was reduced. In total, the school was in lockdown for about 90 minutes, until classes were dismissed at 3:20 p.m.  

Several students told Salem Reporter they didn’t know what was going on during the lockdown and were terrified a shooter might be inside the school. Students said they felt supported by their teachers and South leaders, but were frustrated with the way the district handled communication.

In the days since, Romine has little break. She praised staff and students’ for their response during the lockdown and said she wants to make sure their concerns are addressed. She has spent her evenings at community meetings, fielding questions from parents and neighbors about the shooting and the school’s response.

She’s been gathering feedback on how the lockdown process could be improved. School began two hours late Monday for an all-staff meeting to debrief. Another meeting is planned for next week.

“We’re finding that our staff still need support. And so we’ve been working really closely with our crisis response team to provide, you know, emotional support for staff. We’ve added on extra subs throughout the week, to make sure if people need to take a break, they can,” she said.

South Salem High School students raise their hands to clarify a point with school district officials about the high school’s lunch periods during a forum on school safety on Monday, March 11, 2024. (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Romine said the school is also planning meetings to support students and wants to make sure they get their questions answered.

Baldridge said his team hasn’t had a chance to debrief the lockdown. When they do, he said one of the questions they’ll work to answer is what led to the inaccurate radio call about a shooter inside the school.

“Was it a radio transmission cut off? Was that what the person who made the radio transmission heard and relayed?” he said.

Romine said in the days since the lockdown, she’s talked to South parents who work at Salem Hospital. The hospital installed weapons detectors at entrances in August following the fatal shooting of a security guard at a Portland hospital in July.

Parents described ambivalence, she said.

“Hospitals are supposed to be a place of healing and a welcoming space,” she said. “But over time, they realized that they did need it and it’s something that they don’t even think about anymore. It’s just like an added layer of protection.”

Related coverage:

In tense meeting, South Central neighbors press school district to restrict open campus

“Waiting to hear gunshots”: South Salem students describe anxiety, trauma as school locked down following shooting

Salem schools may get weapons detectors following Bush’s Pasture Park shooting

UPDATED: 16-year-old boy turns himself in, charged with fatal shooting at Bush’s Pasture Park

Community prays, calls for action after Bush’s Pasture Park shooting

Police identify 16-year-old boy killed in Bush’s Pasture Park shooting

“The kid died in my lap”: witnesses describe tragedy, mayhem as 3 shot in Bush’s Pasture Park

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

SUPPORT OUR WORK – We depend on subscribers for resources to report on Salem with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.