Salem-Keizer will demo weapons detection systems, get feedback at Friday event

Salem-Keizer School District officials are considering two weapons detection systems to deploy at middle and high schools following a March 7 shooting involving multiple South Salem High School students at Bush’s Pasture Park.

Both systems will be available for the public to view at an open house on Friday, March 22, at Stephens Middle School, 4962 Hayesville Dr. N.E., from 1-7 p.m. District officials will collect written feedback, and staff will be available to answer questions.

The district does not have a timeline for when systems might be tested or deployed in schools because no decision has been made on whether to acquire them, said Aaron Harada, district spokesman. He said the district will have a better sense of next steps after the Friday event.

The systems that will be on display Friday are from Evolv, a Massachusetts-based security company, and OPENGATE detectors from Ohio-based CEIA USA. 

Both companies use portable scanners — a pole on each side that students would walk through. There’s no bag scanning or overhead gate like traditional metal detectors.

A weapons scanner outside Salem Hospital’s emergency room on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. The hospital added scanners in August 2023 in response to growing concerns about violence in hospitals. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Evolv scanners are currently used at Salem Hospital, which began screening everyone entering the hospital for weapons in 2023. Hospital security officers acknowledged such screenings on their own won’t stop someone determined to commit a mass shooting at the hospital, but said they’re useful for preventing guns and knives people forget they have on them from entering the hospital’s grounds.

Superintendent Andrea Castañeda brought up the possibility of weapons detectors publicly for the first time at a forum last week held at South Salem High School following the shooting.

There, police and district officials addressed the shooting that killed a South Salem sophomore and left two other teens wounded. Both the accused student and the student killed attended classes as South the morning of the shooting, district officials said. They hadn’t established whether that meant a loaded gun was on campus prior to the shooting.

South Salem High School families listen as district officials discuss school security at a forum on Monday, March 11, 2024. The forum followed a shooting involvung multiple South students in Bush’s Pasture Park. (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Castañeda said the district wants to ensure school still feels like school rather than an institution, but endorsed weapons detection as a better and more comprehensive solution than stationing police at schools.

“Metal detection is a far more systematic and comprehensive approach to preventing weapons from getting into our schools. I believe it is the most thorough thing we can do,” she said.

The push for more campus security comes amid widespread agreement from Salem school leaders, organizations serving young people and law enforcement officials that curbing violence and gang involvement requires community investment in Salem’s youth.

That includes more programs to offer mentorship and safe places to hang out after school, as well as one-on-one intervention with the young people most at risk for becoming victims or perpetrators of violent crime.

City leaders earlier this month kicked off a “Community Gun Violence Reduction Initiative,” which includes facilitated conversations over the next year about the issue, but so far no Salem leaders have identified a plan for specific programs addressing vulnerable youth or intervening with those already involved in gangs.

Castañeda and other district leaders began considering weapons detectors in the fall after seeing more young people involved in shootings.

Portland Public Schools began testing weapons detectors last fall at sporting events, Axios reported.

The cost of a weapons detection system would depend on how many units are purchased and which vendor the district uses, Harada said.

It’s not clear where the money to pay for weapons detection would come from. The district is planning to announce hundreds of layoffs this spring to cut tens of millions from school budgets.

A memorial outside South Salem High School following a March 7 shooting at Bush’s Pasture Park that left sophomore Jose Vazquez-Valenzuela dead and two other former South students injured. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

South students who spoke to Salem Reporter following the lockdown on their campus generally said they either supported weapons detection or were neutral, though some questioned how screening all students would work logistically at the start of the school day. Castañeda said any implementation of weapons screening will mean redesigning entrance and exit processes at schools.

“We’ve gone on site to see what weapons detection looks like in systems where they’re really focusing on the quality of the student experience,” she said at the forum.

Principal Tara Romine said in an interview following the announcement that she was grieving the idea that such detectors might be needed.

“Schools are kind of this last place of innocence,” she said. “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.”

The idea has also generated some pushback and concerns. 

Some South students and parents said schools need to return police officers to campuses rather than invest in detection systems.

One parent who attended the forum at South said the district should be asking students what will make them feel safe and focusing on belonging and support.

Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth group that successfully pushed the district to end its contracts with police in 2021, said they opposed weapons screenings. They cited reports from the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, which interviewed students there about being late to class and subject to invasive searches because of metal detectors at their schools.

“The fact that Andrea Castañeda has decided to use this vulnerable time to introduce the idea of metal detectors, which have been proven to be harmful for Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth, shows that our grief is being taken advantage of,” the organization said in a March 13 post on Facebook. They said schools should invest in support and mental health resources for students that prevent gun violence from happening.

Schools have become a growth industry for security companies, with districts around the U.S. spending hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons detection and other security systems.

School safety experts have questioned the effectiveness of such scanners, particularly at detecting knives, reported The 74 Million, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet covering U.S. schools.

“Campus security personnel must decide whether to use sensitivity settings that could miss certain weapons in the name of expedience or to be more thorough but get besieged by false alarms from commonplace school supplies like laptops and three-ring binders,” the outlet’s 2023 report said.

In response to reports of Evolv scanners failing in 2022 to detect a knife a student later stabbed a classmate with in Utica, New York, the company says it has never claimed its products will detect all weapons. Scanners are intended to be part of a broader security screening process, Evolv said on its website.

Salem Reporter’s related coverage:

Grief, ambivalence as South considers next steps for school safety

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.

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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.