Pittsburgh stabbing illuminates disparate education funding

Last week’s horrific school stabbing in a Pittsburgh, Pa. suburb is another in a disturbingly long line of “random” incidents at schools – this one remarkable only in the fact that it was carried out using a knife and not a firearm. The tragic stabbing at Franklin Regional High School reveals more than anything the need for comprehensive and adequately funded mental health care, especially in schools.

On April 9, 16-year-old Alex Hribal allegedly stabbed 20 students and a school security guard before being tackled by assistant principal Sam King. Fortunately, all of the victims are expected to survive, with one of the most critically injured students improving after leaving his fourth surgery on Sunday April 13.

Displaying immense courage, students protected each other at great risk. One student pulled the fire alarm, which may have saved others from being attacked.

This tragedy often leads to politicians waxing philosophical on the inscrutable nature of evil. This is misleading and serves to cover up any real reasons for mass violence. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett decried the violence as “senseless,” removing any blame from objective social or political pressures.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, poverty in the community, poor family functioning and poor grades all increase risk for youths engaging in violence at school. With a failing school system and stymied economy, one can hardly be expected to see violence in schools decrease.

One easily implemented stopgap measure would be the expansion of mental health services. Even 15 years after the Columbine school shooting, practically no effort has been made to increase access to therapy for students in need.

Instead the response to the economic malaise has been to cut education funding. As a result, school districts are faced with a ruinous choice – cut programs, fire teachers or drop social services.

For example, the School District of Philadelphia was forced to fire all of its school counselors to maintain funding for academic programs.

This is despite the fact that “schools are the first line of defense for mental health supports for students” and “that we are at a shortage for support personnel,” as Association of School Psychologists in Pennsylvania president Julia Szarko said in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The lack of political impetus to make these changes is crystallized in Corbett’s mournful statement.

Even though Corbett opposes this violence, he has only increased its likelihood.

In his 2011-2012 budget, Corbett cut education funding by $1 billion. Much of this was due to President Barack Obama’s heralded stimulus expiring, revealing a failing in both the Democratic and Republican parties to sufficiently fund education.

While he has since restored some funding, Corbett continues to be criticized by opponents like Democratic Harrisburg city counselor Bob Koplinski who pointed out that the “amount of money put into education pales in comparison to the draconian cuts he has made in years past.”

These staggering cuts have debilitated school districts across Pennsylvania and are symptomatic of a national school funding problem.

As education is cut, mental health services are neglected. This, in turn, neglects students that need treatment.

Few of these students violently lash out at their classmates, but as anyone that has dealt with a mental illness can tell you, their lives are severely impaired.

Treatment paid for with adequate education funding is the only responsible solution.