Meadville Tribune

April 19, 2014

Safety experts: Many weapons brought to school not reported

By John Finnerty
Meadville Tribune

HARRISBURG — On a typical day last year, Pennsylvania schools caught 11 students toting weapons similar to ones used to slash 21 students and a security guard at a Pittsburgh-area high school, according to the state Department of Education. An untold number of others likely brought weapons to school but weren’t caught, safety experts say.

The state’s data — and the recent slashing at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville — are rekindling efforts to encourage students to report incipient violence. Advocates say getting more students to alert school officials to weapons in the building is an important way to prevent attacks.

“I’ve been saying that for years,” said Monica Thomas, president of Parents Advocating for Safe Schools. Students may be deterred from reporting, she said, by fears they will be summoned to the office, or otherwise entangled or singled out.

Thomas said her group is so frustrated by a lack of reporting systems that it added a link to its web page allowing students to leave tips that can be forwarded to schools. That tip line has gotten little use because hardly anyone knows it exists, she said.

Safe school reports, which districts submit to the state each year, show teachers and school officials nabbed students with knives or other cutting instruments 2,000 times last year — or about 11 per day. Whistle-blowing peers brought those students to light in about 15 percent of cases.

A state House committee on school violence, formed after the December 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six adults, urged schools to create ways for students to anonymously report classmates whom they believe are planning violence.

In the Murrysville case, investigators say the student charged in the stabbing, Alex Hribal, may have threatened others in the days leading to the attack. Police are also trying to determine if Hribal was hazed.

Despite the number of knives confiscated last year, education officials and safety experts maintain most cases of weapons brought to school are benign. In last year’s cases, school officials identified only 54 intended victims, four of whom were actually injured, said Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller.

Don Smith, a former principal who coordinates emergency planning for the Center for Safe Schools in Camp Hill, said two-thirds of cases involving knives happen when students accidentally bring the weapon — usually from work — to school.

A “cutting instrument” is often a box-cutter that belongs to a grocery store stock boy, he said.

State data show the number of students caught with knives last year declined modestly from a decade earlier. In the meantime, Pennsylvania schools last year reported 54 cases involving students who brought firearms to campus.

Charles Heller, superintendent of the Crawford Central School District, agreed that in most cases, knives come to school inadvertently. It’s often a pocket knife used for work or vocational training, he said.

In 12 years at the school district, Heller said he couldn’t recall a single incident in which a student brought a knife with the intention of using it as a weapon.

Safety experts say the state’s safe schools reports paint a different picture than what’s actually happening. The reports exaggerate the threat of certain types of violence while under-reporting others.

For instance, the state tallied 446 reported cases of aggravated assault on school staff last year. Smith said those included every instance where a student hit an educator — acts that most certainly are resolved with lesser charges in court.

Reporting is clearer when police are involved, Smith said. Authorities follow criminal codes for offenses such as assault and harassment. The school reports are less well defined — even though state law requires they be submitted to local police for review.

“If your daughter gets thrown into a locker, that may seem like an assault to you,” he said, while an administrator might describe it as fighting or a “minor altercation.”

Schools reported 15,000 fights and “minor altercations” last year, according to the data.

Things get cloudy in reporting minor infractions, Smith and others say.

For example, Pennsylvania schools reported 3,763 incidents of bullying last year, according to the state’s data. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report one in five students nationwide say they were bullied in 2009.

“There is no uniformity in reporting,” said Thomas, who added that it’s hard to tell what gets designated as a minor altercation. Her anger over one such incident eight years ago prompted her to begin advocating about school safety.

Thomas said she was called and told that her son had been in a fight at school but was all right. When he came home, he couldn’t talk. When he was taken to the hospital, the family discovered he had a broken jaw.

Michelle Nutter, who manages the Center for Safe Schools’ safe and supportive schools program, said state data certainly under-count bullying. But that doesn’t mean school officials are ignoring the problem, she said.

A teacher who interrupts bullying on the playground, for example, may believe the conflict is resolved, she said. If no administrator is notified, the episode doesn’t show up on a report.

Education officials defend the reporting system. In addition to changes in state law that require police to review the school data, Eller noted that administrators who fudge their numbers face penalties, including a fine up to $2,500 for a first-time offense.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

Weapons reported on campus during the 2012-13 school year

Crawford County schools

Knives: 12

Cutting weapons: 4

Firearms: 0

Erie County schools

Knives: 53

Cutting weapons: 14

Firearms: 4

Mercer County schools

Knives: 16

Cutting weapons: 3

Firearms: 1

Venango County schools

Knives: 8

Cutting weapons: 0

Firearms: 0

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education