Knife attack causes concern in schools

Franklin Regional and Hollidaysburg Area high schools have comparable enrollment size and see relatively low poverty among students.

The physical and psychological wounds to the 22 victims of the knife attack at Franklin Regional High School are tender, and speculation circles the teenage suspect’s motive.

About an hour and a half to the east of Franklin Regional on Route 22, Hollidaysburg Area Superintendent Bob Gildea and Curriculum Director Francine Endler recognize a need for their community to pause.

“School districts work very hard to create the safest environments possible for their students, and their teachers and community to enter. And when incidents occur, it absolutely creates a pause,” Endler said. “And we listen, and we learn. We reflect. and we act. But we want kids to feel that when they come to school, they are safe.”

Endler, a former counselor, said school staff are constantly vigilant. They strive to be perceptive of warning signs students display. Changes in students’ personalities is a warning sign, she said. Staff should be aware of major life events involving students that may be affecting them, though they may not show it.

Today’s students live in a technological age. They may turn to Google and social media to deal with their problems in secret, said Mark Frederick, counseling supervisor with UPMC Altoona. Frederick sends counselors to districts in response to traumatic events locally.

“There are so many places they can be exposed to dark and violent things,” he said.

A team of FBI investigators have confiscated the computer of the 16-year-old suspect, The Associated Press has reported.

Gildea has considered the impact of the Franklin Regional incident not only as an educator, but as a parent of three teenagers who use social media.

“So many parents, myself included, we feel that if our teenagers are not coming to us with problems, then everything must be fine. But, as is often the case, there’s a lot happening that we are not aware of,” Gildea said.

“As parents, we have to be vigilant of changes in our children. And as uncomfortable as it is, we have to monitor our kids’ use of social media very closely. If you don’t know your child’s login and password to social media, you have to get that from your kid,” he said. “And as upset as they are with you, you need to be monitoring that.”

Endler agreed, saying it’s not about invading privacy. “It’s about ensuring there are supports there if there’s a need.”

Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Westmoreland County, described Murrysville as a law-abiding community.

“It’s not a place you would consider unsafe,” he said. “It shows there is no school district that is immune.”

“It appears that the perpetrator was not somebody that one would guess to commit such an act of violence.”

Anticipating legislative hearings on school safety to be scheduled, Markosek said legislators “owe it to society in general to formulate legislation to handle situations like this.”

Endler said she thinks the state has provided solid financial help to support school security improvements. Hollidaysburg Area will soon be installing security cameras with a $25,000 state grant. But school administrators have reservations about using metal detectors to search students for weapons like the two 8- to 10-inch knives used in the Franklin Regional stabbing spree.

Detecting emotional and social imbalances in students is the more important focus, Gildea said.

“We don’t want to make our schools prisons,” he said of potentially requiring daily metal detector scans of students. “I think all of these safety procedures are important, but the most critical thing we can do is meet our students’ social and emotional needs. I think that is the critical part.”