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Reading, Writing, and Violence: More Social Workers, Not Cops, Are Needed in Public Schools

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Earlier this month, yet another disturbed student rampaged through a school, stabbing 20 students and a security guard with a pair of knives.

Alex Hribal, a junior at Franklin Regional High School near Pittsburgh, walked into the school at the beginning of the school day and slashed and stabbed his way through the school's packed hallways. An assistant principal eventually tackled him.

Hribal, described as a "weirdo" by fellow students, now stands charged as an adult with 21 counts of attempted homicide, 21 counts of aggravated assault and a single count of carrying a weapon on school property.

His attack occurred shortly before the anniversary of the killings at Columbine High School, where two students went on a suicide attack in a Colorado school that resulted in 12 students and a teacher losing their lives, and another 23 being wounded. That rampage made school security a national priority and has resulted in police patrolling school hallways in many of our public schools.

While Columbine and the Sandy Hook shootings focused the debate on guns, the Pittsburgh stabbings illustrated that other weapons pose a security threat too.

So the question is whether American schools are properly addressing the problem. Cops in the schools may not be the answer, and if fact, can raise legal questions and union-related contractual issues.

For example, when heroin was found in an upstate New York school's bathroom, several male teachers recorded on school security cameras going into the bathroom were rounded up by police and asked to take urine tests to prove themselves innocent.

The union intervened, claiming that their members' constitutional rights were being violated. That the teachers refused upset parents worried that a drug addict was roaming the school.

So it became a tough issue of constitutional rights vs. student safety. Subsequently, most of the teachers voluntarily submitted to the drug tests and were cleared (I represented the teachers in the dispute).

There are many parents and law enforcement officials who argue that there should be more cops in schools and that even teachers should be trained and allowed to carry weapons to thwart armed intruders.

In Florida, the House just passed a bill that would allow school administrators to designate certain employees with either military or law enforcement training or a concealed weapons permit to carry concealed guns in their classrooms. The Senate shows little interest in the bill and it's unlikely to become law.

Others favor better planning so that staff and students can respond effectively to attacks, much like the atomic bomb drills in the 1950s and 1960s.

The best answer may lie in increasing the number of social workers in schools, who are trained to deal with problem students.

In a recent article on the 15th anniversary of Columbine, Julian Kimpel argued that students responsible for school shootings could have been identified and helped before they turned to violence.

One thing we've learned since Columbine is that the clues are always there. Klebold, Harris, Cho and Lanza all exhibited signs of unstable behavior, early hints of the atrocities they would later commit. Hopefully, the world has learned to pay closer attention to those indicators.

Since Columbine, schools have installed metal detectors and more cameras. They have hired more security officers. But school attacks, like many other violent acts, stem from mental illness and dysfunctional behavior.

More emphasis must be placed not on arming teachers, but having more school cops and social workers trained to identify and work with troubled students.

And though ducking under the desk in case of a nuclear attack seemed silly decades ago, teaching students some defensive tactics may be a good idea too.

This article was published in Context Florida on April 29, 2014.

Steven Kurlander blogs at Kurly's Kommentary ( and writes for Context Florida and The Huffington Post and can be found on Twitter @Kurlykomments. He lives in Monticello, N.Y. Column courtesy of Context Florida.