Attendance was at more than 90 percent as students, met by teachers, therapy dogs and counselors, returned to the halls of Franklin Regional High School on Wednesday, one week after a mass stabbing attack allegedly carried out by a 16-year-old sophomore left nearly two dozen wounded or hurt.
"What we saw was a lot of people who were dealing with a lot of different emotions, but to be honest the day started off very typically," said Mary Catherine Reljac, an assistant superintendent with the school district. "At the end of the day they reported that the day was better than expected, they were happy to be back and they were looking forward to coming back tomorrow."
Hugs were common and students received a Panther blue-and-gold "Smiley" cookie provided by an Eat'n Park restaurant on their way out the door.
Community turns out to support Franklin Regional students
A number of parents and well-wishers were on hand to show support for Franklin Regional High School students who returned to classes today for the first time since last week's mass knife assault. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/16/2014)
Alex Pasculle, 18, a senior and emergency medical technician at Priority One Ambulance who helped treat fellow students after the vicious series of stabbings and slashings that unfolded before the 7:22 a.m. bell April 9, said Wednesday's return to class started with a student-led prayer on the football field.
Students then "continued with our normal day," he said, walking hallways decorated with colorful banners and lined with welcoming teachers, administrators and staff from various local schools.
"It went well for me," he said. "I think that as a school we all came together again."
About 41 dogs and 35 handlers have been at the high school since Monday, matched with counselors and "student ambassadors" to "make a positive impact on the energy of the building and to offer students, staff and all employees a proven means to reduce the immediate stress and anxiety of re-entry," a district statement said, calling the dogs a "comforting presence" offering "warmth and unconditional love at a time when it is needed most."
Mrs. Reljac said the students, particularly those grappling the most with their emotions, gravitated toward the dogs.
In planning the return, she added that administrators decided any students or faculty who felt they couldn't make it through the day would be allowed to leave, though she couldn't say Wednesday afternoon whether any did so.
"I'm pleased to report that our students and our staff members did very well today for something that was a very difficult day to undertake," she said.
After school, Alex Pasculle was getting ready to head to Forbes Hospital to visit classmates injured in the stabbing and their families.
"We're all trying to take turns and go see them," he said.
Derek Jones, 17, and Greg Keener, 15, remained in the Forbes intensive care unit in critical but stable condition Wednesday. The third stabbing victim in critical condition at that hospital, Connor Warwick, 16, was released from ICU and moved to another unit Monday.
Jared Boger, 17, was in critical condition at UPMC Presbyterian after a fourth surgery over the weekend, but his condition was improving, doctors have said.
Murrysville police Chief Thomas Seefeld said investigators are still working to determine what motivated suspect Alex Hribal, who authorities say stabbed and slashed 21 students and a security guard with a pair of kitchen knives he brought from home. Chief Seefeld said police have not determined whether Alex made threatening calls to two students the night before the attack.
Two Franklin Regional students received the phone messages and calls sometime before the stabbings, investigators wrote in an affidavit of probable cause filed with a search warrant application. The caller, they wrote, is thought to be Alex Hribal "because of the subsequent conduct of [the suspect] coming to school and attacking numerous individuals."
Chief Seefeld said investigators have seized a cell phone found in Alex's backpack and they believe it belongs to him. Neither Alex nor his family have been interviewed by Murrysville police, the chief said.
Alex's attorney, Patrick Thomassey, who last week said his client did not own a cell phone and uses the family phone, did not return messages Wednesday.
The teen is being held without bond in the Westmoreland County Regional Youth Service Center in Greensburg.
Alex was evaluated "for court process" over the weekend, said Rich Gordon, director of juvenile detention for Westmoreland County.
He said other juveniles at the center were initially "a little unnerved and on-edge" because of Alex, but he is getting along with everyone.
"We're treating Alex just like anybody else," he said.
Lexi Belculfine contributed. Robert Zullo: email@example.com, 412-263-3909 or Twitter: @rczullo. Molly Born: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3909 or Twitter: @molly_born.