South Salem High School to begin weapons detector pilot in late May

Students entering South Salem High School will be screened for weapons starting later this month as part of a pilot program testing new detectors.

District leaders announced the pilot Thursday after maintaining public silence on their plans for detectors following a March 22 demonstration of two possible systems.

The pilot will begin in late May, run through the end of the school year in June and continue in September at the start of the school year. 

The measures come after a fatal shooting involving a South Salem student and as the community addresses an increase in shootings involving young people. 

Officials at the Salem-Keizer School District confiscated one gun from a student at McKay High School this school year, according to an April 9 security report presented to the school board in a closed meeting. 

Suspects identified as district students have shot at people in the community eight times this school year, and six times were found with a firearm away from school, the report said.

A March 7 shooting involving several high school students at Bush’s Pasture Park was a catalyst to enhance school security. The proposal for detectors has drawn mixed feedback from the public and the elected school board members. 

The victim, Jose Vasquez-Valenzuela, and the accused shooter, Nathaniel McCrae Jr., were sophomores at South and attended class the morning of the shooting.

The district is also facing substantial budget cuts and a layoff of about 300 educators over the summer, prompting community questions about how the district can afford new security measures.

The district will buy two OPENGATE detector systems and one from Evolv for about $133,000. That money will come from a settlement the district received from Juul as part of a lawsuit over the company’s promotion of vaping devices to young people.

The settlement restricts the money to programs preventing vaping and mitigating its impacts.

Because the detectors can be set to detect vape pens, the settlement can fund their purchase, according to district spokesman Aaron Harada.  

From left, Chris Baldridge, the Salem-Keizer School District’s director of safety and risk management, Superintendent Andrea Castañeda and Debra Aguilar, deputy chief of the Salem Police Department at a SCAN meeting on Wednesday, March 13 following a shooting in Bush’s Pasture Park. (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Superintendent Andrea Castañeda decided to move forward with the South Salem test to determine if  detectors are the right step that should be deployed to other district middle and high schools. 

The school board was briefed on the decision in April and offered comments on how the pilot should be designed, but by district policy, day-to-day operational decisions such as those affecting security rest with the superintendent.

Castañeda and Chris Baldridge, the district’s director of safety and risk management, said they will use the pilot to assess whether the detectors work at stopping weapons from entering the school, and whether the trade-offs – like possible delays in students getting to class or students feeling unsafe or unwelcome at school – are acceptable.

That will be done by surveying students and staff at South, and tracking attendance, tardies and weapons seized.

The superintendent said the pilot isn’t just a formality before moving on to a districtwide rollout of detectors.

“We’re open to the possibility that the adverse impacts are greater than the possible benefits,” Castañeda said.

Research, public feedback mixed

Research on the impact and effectiveness of metal detectors in schools is mixed, according to the district’s April 9 report. Some studies Castañeda reviewed found detectors served as a deterrent, while others concluded they were helpful in stopping weapons from entering schools. Some research also concluded that detectors made students feel less safe and less welcome at school.

The district initially refused to release the report to Salem Reporter, saying it was exempt because it was part of internal deliberations and concerned security measures. 

After the news organization raised with the district the public interest in the information, officials released the research and data on weapon incidents, but kept confidential the security recommendations.

READ IT: District report on weapon detectors

Castañeda said in an interview that her review showed little research has been done on the use of modern weapon detection systems, which are more portable, less obtrusive and can be set to detect only metal density found in firearms – rather than all metals generally.

“There is an embarrassing lack of research on this important topic in the last five years at the same time that gun-related incidents in schools have been skyrocketing,” she said.

That guided her decision on a pilot.

“We actually don’t have all of the information we need to make these decisions if we’re just turning to the academic literature,” she said. “We need to learn for ourselves some of our answers to questions that we can’t find in the research right now.”

Families view a weapon detection system at a demonstration at Stephens Middle School on Friday, March 22, 2024. The Salem-Keizer School District is considering adding detectors to middle and high schools. (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

The pilot comes after mixed public feedback on weapons detector systems following an open house demonstration in March, and ambivalence toward the move from some school board directors.

Fifteen people submitted comments on weapon detectors in a survey following the open house, and another 47 emailed the school board their thoughts.

About half the comments supported weapon detectors – some enthusiastically, and others with reservations. That included all six comments submitted in Spanish.

“No one who brings a weapon to school, intends to commit violence, or is in a gang deserves to feel ‘welcome’ or ‘safe’ from intense scrutiny and consequences at our schools. Students who do not intend to spend their days peacefully learning alongside their peers and teachers have no right to be on any campus. It’s entirely appropriate to police and heavily scrutinize any children and families who do not take safety and the sanctity of life seriously,” one parent wrote.

“Thank you very much for taking action against violence. I think it is very good that the safety of students and staff is taken seriously. We all have the right to live without fear,” another wrote in Spanish.

About one third of comments opposed adding detectors over concerns about cost, racial profiling, students’ sense of belonging at school and school operations.

“Putting metal detectors in our schools will make them feel more like prisons than a place to learn,” one student wrote. “Although I understand it is not your intention, by making us walk through a metal detector each day you treat us like criminals that cannot be trusted. This would make me feel very negatively about attending school and quite honestly these metal detectors would make me feel more unsafe because it feels as though you are expecting something bad to happen.”  

Other commenters urged the district to instead return police officers to schools or implement other security measures. Some asked factual questions about how weapons detectors would operate and how they would be paid for. Several suggested the district instead arm teachers or allow people with licenses to carry concealed guns to bring firearms into schools.

Leaders of the Alianza Poder, a group of nine local social service organizations that work with Latino and farmworker families, opposed weapon detectors in an April 4 letter authored by leaders of Latinos Unidos Siempre.

“Weapon detectors are a Band-Aid solution that will come at the expense of improving our education system, access to student and family resources, as well as safe and welcoming schools,” the letter said. “What we need instead is investments in programs, education, and resources that prevent any form of violence and address student disengagement.”

Families view a weapon detection system at a demonstration at Stephens Middle School on Friday, March 22, 2024. The Salem-Keizer School District is considering adding detectors to middle and high schools. (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

School board discussions of weapon detectors have been in meetings closed to the public. The board is allowed by state law to meet in private to discuss security measures.

Reporters can attend but not report on such sessions.

Karina Guzman Ortiz, the board chair, said she supports Castañeda’s decision to install the detectors.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this,” she said in an interview. “It’s a hard one. We’re definitely not interested in policing students.”

School board member Maria Hinojos Pressey, who’s been the most vocal opponent of weapons detectors, said her goal is ensuring the pilot reveals the impact on students, staff and school culture.

“A lot of times we think something is a good idea on paper and then it turns out to be something else,” she said.

Both said they want the district to prioritize help for struggling students before they turn to weapons.

Changes at South

South Salem was chosen for the pilot because of its layout and size, not its proximity to the fatal park shooting, according to Baldridge, the security director, and Principal Tara Romine.

The school, which has about 2,200 students, has a sprawling campus over two levels with 85 doors that open to the outside.

Baldridge said that makes it an ideal testing ground.

“It’s an older building, it’s huge, it has a very diverse student body. We can get a lot of perspective at South,” he said. District security workers will train school staff to operate the detectors, Baldridge said. One goal of the pilot is to assess staffing needs.

The main entrance of South Salem High School (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Baldridge said his office has been increasingly challenged by violence involving young people because it’s rarely planned. Fights and confrontations with weapons arise quickly out of disputes between groups. When students are armed, there can be deadly consequences. He hopes to lower the odds of that happening on campus by making it harder for students to bring in weapons.

Baldridge and his team made security changes at South following the March shooting which will be implemented at other schools over the next school year. At South, vinyl coverings were added to windows so people outside can’t see in. The school reduced the number of school doors open as students are entering and leaving the building for the day, and added kiosks for tardy students to sign in so the school has an immediate record of who’s in the building.

Romine said that with detectors, “I’m hoping to find out whether this is going to be an effective layer of our safety process.” 

Students won’t be patted down or have to remove clothing in the pilot.

If a detector alerts, the student will be asked to do their own pat down to find what triggered the alert or turn out pockets. That’s the procedure the district currently uses to check students for weapons if they receive a report or concern.

Castañeda said more improvements in security are likely.

“We have all, the board, our team, have listened with open minds and open hearts to the speakers that have come before us and said things like students will stop coming to school, students will feel a diminished sense of belonging,” she said. “If those things prove to be true, we want to know them early and we want to know them clearly.”

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.