By Robert Zullo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MURRYSVILLE, PA — He always seemed to be “the shy kid in the corner,” a classmate said.
Hours after a startling and savage attack Wednesday morning that left 21 students and a security guard wounded, that was the picture that began to emerge of 16-year-old Alex Hribal, a sophomore at Franklin Regional Senior High School. Armed with two 8-inch knives, he is accused of stabbing and slashing his way through a crowded hallway in an assault that was labeled “bizarre” by both a prosecutor and his own lawyer.
Interviews with nearly two dozen students Wednesday evening at various vigils organized by churches yielded precious little background about Hribal, who was arraigned on charges of attempted homicide, aggravated assault and weapon possession. Four of his alleged victims remained in critical condition Wednesday night.
Many students said they did not know him. Others, like sophomore Anissa Park, who knew Hribal from elementary school but hadn’t talked with him for some time, invariably used the words “shy” and “quiet” to describe him. Some said he was involved in athletics, including street hockey, track and tennis, though The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could not confirm those details Wednesday night.
Another student who knew Hribal, though he spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was stunned by the attack.
“I know him pretty well,” the boy said, adding that Hribal’s interests swung toward the usual for a teenage boy, including hockey and video games. “I’ve never seen any anger from him, ever. … He never seemed like someone who would do anything violent. He never seems very upset or any of that.”
Though his parents could not be reached Wednesday, Hribal’s lawyer, Patrick Thomassey said he had spoken to them about an hour before the teen’s arraignment.
“They did not foresee this coming. They expressed absolute horror,” Thomassey said, adding that the family’s thoughts were with the victims.
Thomassey said the teenager was not a loner nor was he aware of any instances of bullying that would have provoked the attack.
“He’s scared,” Thomassey said. “He’s a young kid. He’s 16, looking like he’s 12. This is all still new to him.”
Thomassey said Alex is a B-plus student from a stable home, describing his family as “like Ozzie and Harriet.”
“They have dinner together every night,” the attorney said, though he would not provide details of his discussions with his client.
“I’m not sure he knows what he did, quite frankly,” Thomassey said. “Something happened here. There’s an issue that maybe nobody knew about.”
District Attorney John Peck said during the brief hearing that Hribal made some statements after school officials tackled him that indicated he wanted to die.
Dan McCool said his 16-year-old daughter, Trinity, was in the hallway as the attack unfolded.
“They just know who he is. They don’t know necessarily much about him. They just say he was kind of quiet and kept to himself,” McCool said, adding that the terror of what had happened didn’t hit him until he went to pick his daughter up at the school, where he was struck by the degree of order and efficiency. “Any time something happens I just try to remain calm. … When I went down to the school to pick her up after she talked to the FBI, I was breaking up then.”
Though she would not discuss the Franklin Regional case specifically, Mary Margaret Kerr, chair of administrative and policy studies and a professor of psychology in education and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, said it can be difficult for schools to predict violent behavior in students.
She said standard psychological tests haven’t been successful in predicting targeted violence in schools, adding that many school attackers had no histories of mental disorders.
Kerr, author of “Strategies for Addressing Behavioral Problems in the Classroom,” referenced a report by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education on school shootings and school-based attacks dating back to 1974.
It found that school attacks are rarely impulsive acts, but are typically planned in advance.
“The study findings also revealed that there is no ‘profile’ of a school shooter; instead, the students who carried out the attacks differed from one another in numerous ways,” according to a synopsis of the report on the Secret Service website.
The study said, however, that most attackers had engaged in prior behavior that concerned at least one adult, and often several adults.
AFP Photo/Scott Olson