Saturday Diary / Hard times at Franklin Regional

The mass stabbing brought back a lot of school memories, some wonderful, some not so.

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For 12 years, I have lived in or been connected to Murrysville. I switched schools a lot but attended all four years of high school at Franklin Regional.

Most of my high school memories are wonderful, but, as in every school I’ve attended, I was bullied. I faced racial and status discrimination. Fortunately, I had a great support system of friends and adults and was able to persevere. Not all kids do.

The April 9 mass stabbing at Franklin Regional brought back a lot of school memories, some wonderful, some not so.

In a seemingly perfect community nestled in the cushion of suburbia, Franklin Regional has always been a factory of athletic and academic greatness. The graduation rate is nearly 97 percent.

At 11, I’d been to six school districts and returned to Franklin Regional for sixth grade. I was academically confused. I looked like a poor kid in an affluent neighborhood, while also struggling to have any shred of confidence in my school performance and social skills. I was bullied by students, but I was also bullied by faculty.

An assistant principal told me I was the worst student she’d ever met. Because of her, I sat in the office more than I attended class. I nearly failed sixth grade. I don’t blame her for my misfortune, but I blame her for failing to do her job. I was falling into severe depression and felt helpless.

Next came Oklahoma City for seventh grade. My grades and self-confidence improved. I began enjoying school.

I came back to Franklin Regional for eighth grade a different person. I did a lot better, until my sophomore year.

A football player made it his job to make me miserable. “Where are your slit-wrist friends at?” he’d say, hovering over me in the hall. “You’re a dirty spic. You should just drop out of school, your life is worthless. You’re a nobody.”

I took it in stride at first, but the confidence I’d worked so hard to build was breaking down.

One day in biology we had a game project, and he told me all the ways mine sucked. I ran into the hallway to cry. Both my biology and math teachers noticed and reported him to my counselor. He wasn’t allowed to go near me. From then on, school was enjoyable again.

Although I came to experience Franklin Regional at its best, students who had it worse were left in the dust.

I met Kayla Grant, now 21, in sixth-grade chorus class. She had a voice like Mariah Carey and was one of the sweetest and happiest girls I knew. But she was heavy, and the insults ensued. They grew worse, more personal and aggressive.

“The counselors helped a bit,” she told me, “but it wasn’t enough.” By high school, she’d begun to act out, scratching one persecutor’s face.

“Even when it was so obvious I was being harassed, the faculty would tell me the camera didn’t catch it, or they heard me swear,” she said. “A teacher emailed my mom telling her that I should just drop out. One of the principals told me it was 99 percent my fault people called me fat or a slut.”

The whole experience has “turned me into a stone with a rough exterior,” she said. “But it taught me to stand up for myself. I am beautiful, regardless of what they say.”

A male 2011 graduate, who wishes to remain anonymous, also noticed the inaction.

“If someone messed with me and I told a teacher, nothing happened,” he said. “I’ve seen kids get bullied and then go to teachers, and all they did was talk to the bully, which never helped anything.”

His senior year, Franklin Regional started a bullying program. Students who either witnessed or experienced bullying met once a month to talk about it.

“It was awful,” he said. “The worst part is, you could be sitting right next to the person who bullied you. Everyone would say they never experienced or saw bullying happen, because they were scared.”

“People spread rumors that I got a family member drunk and had sex with them,” one recent female graduate told me. “People screamed ‘eww’ at me, like I was the most hideous thing they’ve ever seen.”

She lost any sense of self worth. “I gave up on my hygiene,” she said. “Sometimes I wouldn’t shower for days because I didn’t have the energy.”

She said she did receive some help from teachers, “but over time your heart twists into something sinuous and writhing with heat. The scars still linger.”

A male 2008 graduate told me, “I had to learn to fight so people wouldn’t mess with me. The problem now is, kids are being harassed on Facebook and the school dismisses [it because] it’s not within school property.”

One female graduate said, “I had this friend who I was on and off with, then finally I didn’t feel like she was a good friend. That’s when the cyber attacking started.”

She was harassed on Facebook and Twitter, “and the girl would scream ‘look at that hippo’ down the halls when she’d see me,” she said.

In this case, a counselor handled the hallway harassment while a school security officer got the cyber bullying to stop. The officer said she was proud of the student for standing up for herself. This is how school authorities are supposed to help students who feel they can’t help themselves.

People in Murrysville need to more often remember that their community is like any other: full of imperfect human beings. The swift action of the faculty and community after the April 9 stabbings saved lives. I’ve never been more proud to live in Murrysville; everyone reacted promptly to help our endangered children. Students applied pressure to stab wounds, while a certified EMT student dressed victims with gauze. Principals Joan Mellon and Sam King tackled Alex Hribal to keep him from hurting anyone else.

Every student felt loved and secure as they returned to classes April 17. The event will never be forgotten, but school will go back to business as usual.

None of the bullying I’ve described ever ended in a stabbing frenzy. And perhaps bullying was not the issue for Alex Hribal. But it has been for other kids who’ve attacked their schoolmates.

A blog post by Phil Macioce, a Franklin Regional math teacher, suggests that knowing a kid well isn’t always enough to know what they’re going through.

“I always thought if I looked into the eyes of a student every day for 150 straight days in my classroom that I would know or see something … anything … that would lead me to believe he was capable of such an atrocity,” he wrote. “I, and all of Alex’s teachers, will kick ourselves every day for a long time for not seeing something.”

The fact that one of the most personable teachers at Franklin Regional couldn’t see this coming speaks volumes.

Teachers may not always know what’s happening when they look in their students’ eyes every day. But it is a certainty that they will not know if they don’t bother to look.

Nikki Pena, a 2010 graduate of Franklin Regional, was a reporting intern for the Post-Gazette this spring and is a rising senior majoring in English writing at the University of Pittsburgh Greensburg campus (nrpena92@gmail.com).


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