On Wednesday, authorities apprehended 16-year-old Alex Hribal, who stabbed 22 people with a pair of kitchen knives, in a bloody rampage at Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. Of the victims, 21 were students, and one was an adult security guard. Two of those people are considered in "critical" condition. Hribal is currently being held at a juvenile detention center, and will face four counts of attempted homicide and 21 counts of aggravated assault. He'll also be tried as an adult.
Since news broke yesterday of the awful event, law enforcement and journalists alike have endeavored to get a sense of the stabber's motive. So far, nothing has been officially concluded, but cops are investigating rumors of a threatening phone call, allegedly made by Hribal the night before, to a fellow student.
Hope Demont, a freshman at Franklin Regional willing to speak to the media, told the Pittsburgh Gazette the rumor — that Hribal allegedly told an upperclassman "I'm going to fuck you up," and placed the call from a restricted number.
This is, it goes without saying, as speculative as it gets. In the wake of a life-altering incident like this, that rumors about why it happened would flourish isn't surprising. Demont is relating a rumor about a threat allegedly received by somebody else. And as we all know, high schools are veritable hotbeds of rumor — likely more so when outlets are begging for precisely that kind of comment.
Reporting in the immediate aftermath of tragic, violent sprees like this can be tricky, because information is so aggressively desired at the same time that there's the most need for clarity and restraint.
This was laid particularly bare following the infamous Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999. As Dave Cullen details in his excellent book Columbine, the initial perception of the pair as relentlessly bullied, outcast youths who turned to murder after a stint in the so-called "trenchcoat mafia" was profoundly flawed and incorrect, and created lasting impressions about the shooting which erroneously persist to this day.
Writing in The New York Times in the aftermath of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting in 2012, Cullen urged people not to fall into that trap. It's worth learning as much as one can about the factual, clear-cut circumstances of such a heavily-covered attack. But it's important not to jump to ill-founded conclusions on the strength of those facts.
If you cobble together the report of angry, threatening phone calls with eyewitness accounts of Hribal's "blank" expression as he stabbed his classmates, and his reputation as a "shy" teenager, all sorts of assumptions about socially-disturbed, violent behavior can rise to the surface. Still, until local authorities present a clearer, comprehensive picture of what took place, Wednesday and beforehand, it's better to wait.