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School stabbings renew debate about heightened security

| Friday, April 11, 2014, 10:51 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Dave Brazel, of Murrysville, rests his hand on his his son Lucas, 4, while discussing the addition of metal detectors at Franklin Regional High School on April 11, 2014 following the recent stabbing tragedy. “I don’t think I would mind metal detectors at all. Maybe it could have stopped that,” Brazel said.

An armed police officer, two security guards, door buzzers and scores of surveillance cameras feeding into the local police department were not enough to keep a 16-year-old from exacting a bloody toll on his classmates on Wednesday morning in the halls of Franklin Regional Senior High School.

The incident that left a security guard and 20 students wounded — several critically — sparked new debate about how to best protect students at school.

As is often the case, the debate centers around physical barriers to violence, protections for students in schools and efforts to address troubled students to head off violence.

While some insist armed guards are a reasoned response to heightened violence, experts say they are not a cure-all.

Kevin Quinn, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said school resource officers, such as the one on duty at Franklin Regional, are subject to the same use of force guidelines as any police officer.

“With 1,200 kids in the hallways, it probably wasn't reasonable or safe for an officer to take a shot,” Quinn said. A gun is “just one small difference between having an armed staffer and having properly trained staff that can access other options.”

It's unclear how the conversation about school violence is unfolding in Franklin Regional, where officials have barred teachers, staffers and school board members from talking with the media.

“We will have time to talk about (safety and security), but now is not the time,” said Assistant Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac.

Others are talking about it.

Gov. Tom Corbett has asked his Cabinet to weigh options for curbing school violence, said press spokesman Jay Pagni.

“Our immediate thrust has been on the emergency response and making the departments of education and public welfare available to respond, but the governor has said school should be a safe place for children to learn, and it is every adult's responsibility to ensure it is,” Pagni said.

And conversations are unfolding in living rooms, on ball fields and in coffee shops throughout the region, even as Alex Hribal, the sophomore accused in the stabbing spree, undergoes a psychiatric evaluation as defense attorneys seek to move his case to juvenile court.

Metal detectors might have stopped him, some say.

Cheyenne McIntyre, 18, said she was surprised metal detectors are not in place in her school.

“But no one ever believed it would happen here. People believe those things just don't happen at Franklin Regional,” she said.

Some adults caution against such measures.

Former Franklin Regional PTO President Amy Hehn, whose two sons are district graduates, fears the impact metal detectors would have on students.

Having the children pass through an elaborate security system “wouldn't make kids feel too great about themselves. ... I think it could be a barrier for some,” she said.

Moreover, such devices probably would not prevent students set on violence from finding a way to cause harm, Hehn said.

Wayne Wade Jr., security coordinator, said officials at McKeesport Area School District have relied on metal detectors in the high school and junior high for nearly a decade.

“It's not a cure-all, but it's definitely a deterrent. It seems to be a long process every morning, but our staff and students have become accustomed to it and realize it's for their safety,” Wade said, adding that the metal detectors have caught potential weapons like knives and scissors.

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based school safety consultant, said looks can be deceiving where security is concerned.

“Metal detectors serve an emotional security need, but not necessarily the real security guarantee people desire,” he said.

Amy Klinger, a professor at Ashland University, is director of programs for the Educators' School Safety Network. She advocates for a coordinated, well-planned response to school violence but said the real need lies in a more comprehensive approach toward prevention.

“I don't think security is the only perspective. You're not running a prison; you're running a school,” Klinger said.

Trained threat assessment teams can help spot potential perpetrators, she said.

“Threat assessment management is a very powerful tool that pulls from all aspects of a student's life — teachers, coaches, parents and others in the community — and uses trained teams to connect the dots,” Klinger said.

“For the same cost of a single door buzzer, we can train five threat assessment teams. We've heard of shootings, suicides, fights, all kinds of things that have been prevented,” she said.

Beverly King, director of the Center for the Study of the Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said officials there have concluded that effective intelligence gathering is key to heading off trouble before it becomes tragedy.

In the aftermath of the Columbine shootings, authorities in Colorado adopted a program called “Safe to Tell,” which permits anyone to call in information about troubled students that authorities can follow up.

“We found in a lot of these instances of school violence, people knew something. The line is in the Colorado Attorney General's Office, and it's all anonymous and protected by law,” King said.

It will be about two years before Dave Brazel's 4-year-old son, Lucas, enters the Franklin Regional school system.

Brazel, who was headed to lunch in a Walnut Hollow eatery on Friday, said security has crossed his mind many times since the stabbings. He hopes school officials take a serious, measured approach to the issue.

“I don't think I would mind metal detectors at all. Maybe it could have stopped that,” Brazel said, glancing at the small boy holding his hand.

Debra Erdley and Paul Peirce are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Joe Napsha and Stacey Federoff contributed to this report.

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