School Stabbings Signal Need for Broad Safety Plans
Experts question hyperfocus on guns
Large-scale shootings have been a dominant driver of school safety debates, but a stabbing spree at a Pennsylvania high school this month should serve as a reminder that educators need to be prepared for a range of situations—including smaller, nonfatal incidents that don't involve guns at all, school safety experts say.
Following most school shootings—like the December 2012 killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.—conversation quickly turns to the polarizing subject of gun policy.
And while some districts work to implement comprehensive safety plans that address mental-health concerns, school climate, and security procedures, policymakers often direct efforts and resources specifically toward the prevention of gun-related incidents, experts say.
"When we focus our policy responses almost entirely on firearms in these events, we overlook major things and we aren't going to address the root of the problem," said Laura E. Agnich, an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
That narrow focus can lead to "knee jerk" responses such as overly broad zero-tolerance policies and costly building upgrades, instead of research-based school climate measures and carefully practiced safety procedures, Ms. Agnich said.
In the 2010-11 school year, U.S. public schools reported 5,000 cases of student possession of a firearm or explosive device, and 72,300 cases of possession of a knife or other sharp object, according to the most recent information available from the U.S. Department of Education.
The April 9 incident in Murraysville, Pa., drew more attention than most nonfatal acts of school violence because of its unusual nature and the number of victims, according to school safety researchers.
Alex Hribal, 16, injured 21 students and a school security officer when he went on a stabbing spree with two large kitchen knives in a crowded hallway at Franklin Regional Senior High School, near Pittsburgh, where he is a sophomore, police said.
Students present for the attack said they initially didn't understand what was happening, or that weapons were involved, according to media accounts. Doctors told reporters that some victims didn't realize at first they'd been stabbed.
An assistant principal and a school resource officer subdued and disarmed Mr. Hribal. The youth was later charged as an adult with four counts of attempted homicide and 21 counts of aggravated assault.
Authorities have released little information that could reveal a motive, but in a search warrant for Mr. Hribal's home, police said they believe the student made threatening phone calls to two classmates before the attacks. The warrant does not specify when those calls were made, and authorities said the targets of the calls were not injured in the stabbings.
Despite such high-profile incidents, schools are still statistically very safe, Ms. Agnich said.
It's difficult to quantify the exact number of knife-related casualties that occur in U.S. schools, since federal statistics on school-related injuries and fatalities do not break down the numbers by the type of weapon used.
Seven percent of public school students in grades 9-12 reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school in the 2010-11 school year, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education.
Federal data also show that schools have been taking steps to limit attacks of all kinds—not just shootings. In the 2009-10 school year, 92 percent of schools reported controlling access to their buildings, 36 percent reported the presence of an anonymous threat-reporting system, and 61 percent reported the use of security cameras.
The Education Department is expected to release new data on school security—the first since the Newtown shootings—this summer. But anecdotal reports from districts and education groups show schools have stepped up security since those attacks, hiring additional security guards, auditing safety procedures, and retrofitting buildings to slow forced entry.
Safety experts argue that a broad range of safety and student-support efforts are necessary in schools because even incidents that fly below the radar of national news outlets can disrupt a student's education.
In a 2013 poll of more than 600,000 U.S. students by Gallup Education, 5 percent of respondents strongly disagreed with the statement "I feel safe at school." Forty-seven percent of respondents strongly agreed with the statement. Gallup considers a sense of safety a key indicator of student engagement, which is linked to academic success.
After the stabbings in Pennsylvania, several school safety experts referred to a position statement signed by 183 organizations and nearly 200 researchers and practitioners following the Newtown shootings.
"Inclinations to intensify security in schools should be reconsidered. We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses," the position paper said. "Effective prevention cannot wait until there is a gunman in a school parking lot. We need resources such as mental-health supports and threat-assessment teams in every school and community so that people can seek assistance when they recognize that someone is troubled and requires help."
Outbreaks of school violence "show the price we pay when we don't act," said Art Terrazas, the director of government affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based American Counseling Association.
The organization has been pushing for federal funding to hire more school counselors, in part to promote school safety.
In the 2011-12 school year, there was one school counselor for every 470 students in the United States, Mr. Terrazas said. The counseling association is calling for passage of the Student Support Act, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. The bill would providing federal matching grants to states to lower the ratio to one counselor for every 250 students.
Counselors are trained to identify and treat mental-health issues early, Mr. Terrazas said, but that job is made difficult when some counselors are working with 900 students while also juggling other duties.
Because a gun wasn't involved in the Pennsylvania incident, conversations about gun control didn't dominate the media coverage and public discourse that followed. Educators and others who are concerned about students' mental health hope policymakers will respond to this incident by taking a step back and considering "the underlying cause" of such violence, Mr. Terrazas said.
While several states took steps to strengthen mental-health services after the Newtown shootings, an Education Week analysis of more than 450 school safety bills filed in 2013 legislative sessions shows that state lawmakers also considered 84 measures to arm school employees and 73 proposals to loosen gun restrictions and allow for some concealed weapons in school zones.
Many of those proposals were reintroduced in the 2014 sessions.
Such measures may not have helped stop a stabbing in a crowded hallway, said Kevin Quinn, the president of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Even people a few feet away from the attacker had difficulty understanding what was happening during the attacks, and, without the sound of gunfire, an armed teacher might not have known to respond to the scene, he said.
And, while deadly force would be appropriate to stop a knife attack, even a trained law-enforcement officer wouldn't fire a gun into a crowded hallway, Mr. Quinn said. He added that it would take full law-enforcement training to deal with such an event.
Large-scale knife-related incidents at schools are still more common in countries where people have more limited access to guns than people do in the United States. Between 2010 and 2012, a spate of attacks with knives and hammers at Chinese schools left dozens dead and more than 100 injured.
For effective prevention, U.S. educators and policymakers should ensure that procedures focus on the root cause of violence in schools, not just the weapons used to carry it out, Ms. Agnich said.
"Our hyperfocus on active-shooter drills isn't going to help when they are using other weapons," she said.
Vol. 33, Issue 29, Page 7Published in Print: April 23, 2014, as School Stabbings Point to Need for Broad Safety Approach