Weapons detector pilot begins Wednesday at South

Students entering South Salem High School will walk through weapon detectors starting Wednesday morning.

The school is piloting two weapon detector systems through the end of the school year as part of a district effort to decide if they should be installed at all middle and high schools.

District officials announced the decision earlier this month but said only that the pilot would begin in late May.

On Friday, district officials announced the pilot start date in a message to South employees, students and families. 

“Students will need to go through a weapons detection system anytime they enter the building, before school and throughout the school day, unless they have been with a teacher who is supervising their class outside of the building,” the message said.

The school has about 2,200 students and 85 exterior doors.

The message included a pre-pilot survey asking recipients to list and rank concerns with the use of weapons detectors, and say how much the detectors would affect them feeling welcome and safe at school. It has so far garnered about 750 responses and remains open, district spokesman Aaron Harada said..

Security employees were at South Tuesday unboxing the new detectors and setting them up in preparation for the rollout.

Students will generally be able to walk through the detector without taking off backpacks or having bags x-rayed, the message said. But some items, including Chromebooks and laptops, umbrellas, glasses cases and large notebooks or three-ring binders will have to be handed to school staff as students walk through.

“The metal spine of Chromebooks, laptops, and large notebooks will cause the detector to alert because the shape and density of the metal spine are similar to a potential weapon,” the message said.

Baldridge and Tara Romine, South’s principal, said 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, turn out pockets or open their own bag to find what triggered the alert. That’s the procedure the district currently uses to check students for weapons if they receive a report or concern.

Security staff have restricted the number of doors that can be used during the school day at South Salem High School, with many labeled as emergency exits only in May 2024. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

District leaders were discussing weapons detectors early in the school year privately, but a March 7 shooting involving several high school students at Bush’s Pasture Park was a catalyst for moving a pilot forward. The proposal for detectors has drawn mixed feedback from the public and the elected school board members. 

Superintendent Andrea Castañeda and Chris Baldridge, the district’s director of safety and risk management, previously told Salem Reporter 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.

The pilot is testing systems from two companies, Evolv and OPENGATE, which is made by security company CEIA USA. The cost of materials for the pilot is 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.

Detectors have various sensitivity settings that can be used to detect only firearms, or other metal items including vape pens.

District officials have declined to say what settings they intend to use for the detectors during the pilot.

The move is part of a larger effort to make school buildings more secure this spring that has also included cutting down on the number of doors students can use during the school day and film covering windows so people can’t see inside the building.

The pilot at South will likely continue when school resumes in the fall and inform Castañeda’s decision about whether to install weapons detectors at other district middle and high schools.

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.