Heartbroken Over Pennsylvania School Stabbings: How Are We Failing Our Kids?

3 years ago

I'm heartbroken. It seems that yet again, a kid -- a sixteen year old -- felt such desperation, pain and rage that he saw his only option was to act out in a violent and permanent way.  In his wake, his classmates are fighting for their lives, terrorized and forever altered by their experience.

On Wednesday, a sophomore from outside of Pittsburgh, stabbed multiple fellow students.

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Over the next hours, days and weeks, we will find out who Alex Hribal is, and perhaps why he chose to come to school on this day with such an intent.  In the meantime, as parents, educators and adults, we have some tough questions to ask ourselves because somewhere, somehow, we are failing our kids.

Most likely, it won't take that long to learn the why of what happened.  But, it's the how, that interests me more.  How do these students, these kids, come to believe that violence is their best, if not only, option.  How did this boy come to be at school with knives intending to do such harm?  How did he get to this place?

I'm sure we will hear about the usual suspects, which, most likely, taken in some sort of combination probably played a role on Wednesday. There is no doubt that there is rampant violence in our culture.  Some will argue that we have desensitized our youth through television, music, movies and video games.  And, like it or not, good for us or not, this is a generation that has immediate access to any and all kinds of information in the palm of their hands.  Literally.

We will talk about the moral decay evident in our television programing and in our seemingly incessant desire to worship celebrity.  And, of course, as it is the provocative subject of the past few years, I shouldn't have been at all surprised when news coverage of the stabbing immediately questioned whether bullying played a role in this boy's actions today.

We've spent a lot of time and money recently in schools, on the news and in our culture at large talking about bullying.  We have immensely popular songs about it, TV ads espousing self-esteem and celebrities supporting anti-bullying campaigns.

In my home, bullying is not acceptable, and I teach that being unkind to another is never okay.  However, my definition is different than today's standards, where bullying includes anything from calling someone a jerk, to not being allowed to exclude certain people from your birthday parties.

I don't believe bullying is calling someone a jerk (or worse), not inviting someone to your party or choosing not to like someone.  I believe that a measure of bullying is a natural occurrence especially in the pre-teen and teen years and that no amount of public relations and media coverage, school programming, or rap music performances will eradicate it entirely.  That doesn't mean that I find it acceptable. Being bullied can have lasting, damaging effects.  By no means do I mean to underestimate that truth.  However, we need to do better in how we address all involved and how we build our own kids up so that they can cope and find better solutions than violence.

As is typical, we started with a reasonable plan to curtail the worst types of actions perpetrated by bullies, to get schools on board to assist, and to set up programs to educate kids. Instead, in many cases, school policy ended up written in such a way that the "Bullying Coordinator"  (Seriously, that's his title.  It makes it sound like he's rounding up all the school bullies for a field trip) ends up having to suspend Johnny for calling the kid in his gym class a jerk. It's reminiscent of the suspension of a kindergartener for using a toy gun on a playground after Columbine. For these policies to be effective, common sense must prevail.

In my opinion, our policies are written in a reactive rather than a proactive way and don't address the reasons kids bully or take into consideration the needs of the bully and not just the victim.  In doing that, there is no hope of ending the cycle. Punishing the bully without understanding his motives accomplishes nothing but a short-term fix and leaves both bully and victim with little or no resolution.

Also, unfortunately, I think that with our current policies, it may be that our full frontal assault on bullying (or bullying the bully) may have the unintended consequence of denying our kids the opportunity and the necessity of learning the ability to cope. It's a tough world out there where not everyone will find us to be the smartest, cutest and best athlete to ever walk the earth and where not everyone that interviews you for a job will find you to be all that brilliant or creative.  They won't be impressed that you dress well, are well read or that you are a good person.  To be honest, they don't really give a crap. And they won't feel badly when they don't hire you or even call you back.

We need to prepare our kids for the world in which they live; and it's not such a nice place.  Bad things happen to good people every day.  Just ask the parents of the students in surgery right now outside of Pittsburgh.

We failed all the players today and it's time to find solutions.  Don't accept bullies in your own life or in your kids' lives. But teach them how to cope. Explain to them that the bully is often, not always, but often, in terrible pain too.  Tell them that not being included in the party doesn't have to define your the way you think of yourself.  Celebrate their success and teach them how to recover from failure.

I'm heartbroken and I'm scared.  Days like today shouldn't happen.  They are our kids and we owe them more.  We need to do better.

I will be praying for all involved; the innocent victims, their families and their friends.  I will also pray for the perpetrator because to make sense of this, I have to believe that somehow, somewhere along the line, this boy has been terribly hurt himself and at some point, will understand that he is to spend the rest of his life agonizing over his actions today.

Just heartbroken.

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