Alex Hribal: A puzzle for professionals everywhere


Alex HribalDo you remember my article published on Alex Hribal, a 16-year old who stabbed 20 high school students and an adult in the Franklin Regional High School of a quiet suburb in Pennsylvania? The article was titled: Parental Responsibility in Tragedy through my sister-site Psychcentral/caregivers. The article focused on a very controversial topic which involves parents being held liable for the dangerous, violent, and careless behaviors of their children or a child whom they know struggles with behavioral or mental health challenges. Parents are held liable for cases such as Alex Hribal’s in many states. The difficulty is in proving negligence and arriving at a settlement for the “damages,” and in many case, lives lost. 

As of this past week, Alex’s attorney, Patrick J. Thomassey, inquired of the courts and requested that Alex be removed from a secure detention center for juveniles and placed in a secure residential treatment facility for youths struggling with mental health disorders. The residential treatment facility, Adelphoi Village in Latrobe Pennsylvania, is often a place where youngsters “recover” from severe psychiatric and behavioral disorders.  These youngsters are often released to other facilities for after-care and sent back to detention centers pending their trial or further charges. In the case of Alex Hribal, he may be in the mental health system for a very long time before he is ever transported back to a detention center for juvenile delinquency. In fact, many cases are often halted for long periods of time due to an increasingly deteriorating mental status. Most individuals, especially youngsters, are sent to mental health hospitals in rural areas to “recover” before a trial can continue. The idea is that the individual must “recover” in order to understand the charges pending against him or her. The whole idea of getting mental health treatment is to recover to a point of being able to understand why you are being punished. It is a very weak system.


The petition put forth by Attorney Thomassey states that Alex was previously diagnosed with schizophrenia (a severe and chronic mental illness that requires treatment) and a depressive disorder. If this is in fact true, Alex’s parents could be sued or held liable in the state of Pennsylvania. Alex received his diagnosis from a mental health clinic or hospital in the past. His parents knew that he struggled with mental health issues. To receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia takes a long psychiatric evaluation and sometimes multiple evaluations before a decision is reached in cases involving individuals under age 18. Schizophrenia is often not diagnosed in a population under the age of 18 and when it is, the mental health condition and symptoms are usually very severe. With a diagnosis of this magnitude, it is apparent that his parents knew he had a mental health disorder that impaired his ability to function appropriately in society and possibly in school. There are more details to this story that are not being revealed to the public. Sadly, this will anger many of the families that became the victims of Alex on April 9, 2014.


It’s very sad and highly disturbing that our mental health system continues to fail many of our youngsters and even adults with severe and untreated mental illnesses. We have a great divide between multiple systems in our system such as the divide between the juvenile justice system (who takes a black/white look at mental illness) and the mental health system (who believes most youngsters who commit crimes should be screened for undetected or worsening mental health problems). There is also a great divide between the educational system and mental illness as well, often resulting in many students being overlooked or not receiving appropriate behavioral and emotional supports. Of course, there are IEP’s (individualized education plans), but these are often either not written correctly, not shared with the parent, or totally unhelpful to the severe needs of a student. We are in a state of emergency when it comes to the deteriorating conditions of our youth.

As a therapist and mental health professional, I see many young people on a daily basis who are in need of mental health and behavioral services, but who are not receiving them either due to low income of the family, geographical area (living in inner city neighborhoods or rural areas), or the lax educational or mental health system.

With continual ignorance circulating in our society about mental illness, we pay the ultimate price either in cases such as Alex Hribal, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, and many many others alike. In other situations, our protectors (our police force ) pay the price. Even more, our first responders also pay the price, those who respond to crisis situations, domestic violence complaints, fires, or other emergency calls.


It’s about time we wake up. I’m tired of saying it, or you tired of hearing it? If so, we’re way behind in our action. Lets change this now!


Photo credit: WTAE NEWS

4 thoughts on “Alex Hribal: A puzzle for professionals everywhere

  1. I am not sure how I feel about Parents being held accountable for their childs actions, although if they knew about his problems and did not help him get treatment in any way at all and he was displaying signs I could see an argument – but in the end, it is all a slippery slope.

    But the system has indeed failed children, teens, and adults. As a teen I was having problems which were clearly evident. My school counselor found out I had been sexually abused, it was reported, and she begged my parents to put me in therapy, which they adamantly ignored despite my self injury and frequent illnesses (stress related) which led me to be put on homebound for over 97 days. In high school my depression grew, and I have come to find out (as I have kept in touch with teachers, that many of them recognized I was having serious problems (fainting in class, sleeping all the time, refusing to take exams etc), but because my grades were fine by the end of the semester they did not want to address the issues or get involved. In college I completely fell apart my junior year and was hospitalized 15 times and ended up in a state hospital. I am honestly angry at my parents and teachers for not stepping in when the signs were obvious, and all of them admit that they were, but none of them wanted to step in to help. I don’t know how adults can see kids struggling and feel it is ok to turn the other way

    1. Hi Marie:
      Thank you for sharing your touching and all to familiar story.I agree with you. I’m not all too sure how I see this as well because mental illness is very difficult to predict and yet, if parents see signs they need to accept reality and get their child help and support from professionals. Finding the right “professional” is often difficult which discourages families from seeking mental health support. As you point out about your parents, some are being told “your child has a problem, he or she is slipping” and they do absolutely nothing. Sometimes parents don’t do anything out of fear, not knowing what to expect, or not wanting to accept reality. Other parents don’t seek treatment because they don’t believe in mental illness at all, they are selfish and don’t want the stigma, or they are ill themselves and cannot or won’t help their child. It’s a sad reality but your story Marie is very, very familiar in my field.

      I don’t know how adults can stand back either and watch our kids slip away. A lot of it is due to ignorance and lack of acceptance of reality. All the more reason why so many people need to hear your story and others like it.
      All the best

  2. Is this accurate?

    He was diagnosed whilst he was in custody which was on 14 May 2014, as stated in the court petition you linked to. Over a month AFTER the stabbings.

    To my knowledge his parents weren’t aware of any previous mental health diagnosis.

    1. Janie:
      Thank you for your response. Yes, it is accurate. If you look at multiple sources on the story, Alex was diagnosed with a “new” diagnosis for the purposes of court and for the purposes of treating his current, acute illness. This does not mean he did not have a diagnosis in the past, which many have not only speculated about but have found to be true. It is unlikely and rare to wake up one day and become “psychotic” or mentally unstable. The point is that Alex has always been troubled, but when he got this way, why, and what symptoms he showed leading up to the attacks remains to be seen.

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