Pennsylvania School Stabbing–What Can We Learn?

MURRYSVILLE, Pennsylvania – A 16-year-old student wielding two knives went on a stabbing rampage in the hallways of a Pittsburgh-area high school on Wednesday, wounding 22 people before he was tackled by an assistant principal, officials said.

Although details of the incident are still being revealed as I write this, from our perspective as practical, self-reliant, defense-minded people, we need to focus on the real lessons that can be gleaned from this incident and not get distracted by the hype.

As usual, the media is focusing on “why” the incident happened, what the attacker was feeling and thinking, how and where he got his weapons, and all the typical drivel that passes as “news.” From our perspective—specifically with regard to the tactics of Counter-Blade Concepts (CBC)—we need to look at the details and figure out what we can do better to keep ourselves safe.

Like virtually all other knife attacks, the attacker, Alex Hribal, did not brandish his weapons before he launched his attack. One of the doctors who treated several of the victims commented “Almost all of them said they didn’t see anyone coming at them. It apparently was a crowded hallway and they were going about their business, and then just felt pain and started bleeding.” Although crowded conditions always make things more difficult, awareness and your positioning within the crowd are critical to recognizing a threat as early as possible and being able to react appropriately.

As we know from our study of CBC, in many knife attacks, the victims don’t know that an edged weapon is present until they’ve been cut or stabbed. A doctor who treated six of the victims, primarily teens, said at first they did not know they had been stabbed. “They just felt pain and noticed they were bleeding,” said Dr. Timothy VanFleet, chief of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Based on this, focusing your training on default empty-hand responses that are consistent with defending against an edged weapon is a good idea. These defenses should includes techniques like the Compression Lock that control the striking limb and restrict the attacker’s movement–as well as his ability to continue to target you. From an MBC/knife application standpoint, the victims’ experiences are another reminder that stabs to the torso, while potentially life threatening, are not immediate fight stoppers.

One of the most revealing aspects of this attack is the fact that it is estimated to have lasted five minutes. A school is a non-permissive environment where the carry of effective purpose-designed weapons that could have brought about a quick stop to this attack is prohibited. That’s exactly why people like Hribal choose such environments for their attacks. Again, for our purposes, it is a stark reminder that we need to have the skills and resources to stop an attack decisively—especially if we are stuck in a non-permissive environment without our preferred carry weapons. One simple defense is to use a backpack as a shield and back it up with eye strikes and low-line kicks to disable the attacker. You should also know where fire extinguishers are located and be prepared to grab one. Spray it to disrupt the attacker’s vision and then beat him with it. Carry a stout tactical pen and have the resolve and the skills to use it effectively. Finally,make practical, realistic empty-hand defenses against edged weapons a priority in your self-defense training. If the knife defenses you are currently practicing are contrived and unrealistic, now is the time to find something better.

Although it was finally the decisive action of the school’s Assistant Principal, Sam King, which stopped the attack, the message behind the media’s description of it is dangerously misleading. As they typically do, media reports described King as having “tackled” the attacker. While that may or may not be a factual statement, we shouldn’t let it mislead us into modeling “tackling” as an effective defense against an edged weapon. We need to be smarter, better trained, and more committed than that. Wrapping your arms around an armed attacker and knocking him to the ground is not the most decisive way to solve the problem. If the only technique you have is tackling, at least do it with the intent of viciously slamming the attacker into the hardest, most unforgiving surface you can find. Once he’s down, strike him relentlessly until he is physically incapable of renewing his attack. News reports mentioned that Alex Hribal had been treated for minor wounds on his hands and photos of him in custody showed no signs of obvious injury. A defense that was more appropriate to the nature of the deadly threat he presented would have–and should have–“left a mark.” Train to have more options in your empty-hand arsenal and don’t forget that you’re fighting for your life, not trying to prevent a touchdown.

Understanding “why” someone does something like this doesn’t do anything to change the immediate reality of surviving the attack. In that moment, you have two choices: Stop him, or let him. Being prepared to take decisive action at a moment’s notice is critical and must be part of your mental preparation for self-defense. Although it’s not politically correct to admit it, actively profiling people in your daily workspace who appear socially detached and potentially volatile is a good survival practice. You don’t treat them any differently, but you should strive to be keenly aware of their presence and look for any specific behavioral signs of a potential imminent threat.

I developed Counter-Blade Concepts to empower the average person to deal with the reality of an edged-weapon attack effectively and decisively. One of the most distinctive aspects of CBC is the emphasis on analyzing the characteristics and methodologies of actual knife attacks. This incident now needs to be included in that analysis. One of the things we need to focus on more heavily is dealing with an attacker armed with two knives—not just one. We’re going to work on that. Traditionally, MBC and CBC training has also been limited to adults or very mature teenagers training with their parents. Teaching CBC out as a focused skill set to younger kids also seems to be a worthwhile cause. We’ll work on that, too.

As details of this incident continue to come to light, don’t get lost in the media hype and sensationalism or the fact that he was “just a kid.” If we learn that the attacker was depressed, disadvantaged, or picked on, separate any sympathy you might feel for him from your conscious effort to develop sound combative counter-knife skills. Remember, it doesn’t matter why he or anyone else might choose to attack. In that moment, he’s defined the terms of your relationship. And in that moment, your choice is simple: You either stop him, or you let him.

Stay safe,


P.S. As I write this, it’s only been a day since this incident, but I’ve already gotten quite a few inquiries from people looking for good information on counter-knife tactics. At present, the best video resource I have to offer is my Counter-Blade Concepts DVD. Although the information in it is solid, the CBC system—which has been validated in a number of actual knife attacks—has evolved tremendously since that video was made. Production of an updated CBC video is planned in the near future, but the best near-term source of state-of-the-art CBC tactics is the MBC Distance Learning Program. The DLP is a living, evolving, interactive library of short, highly-focused instructional videos. It also includes many other benefits that allow you to learn effectively through virtual private lessons with me no matter where you are in the world. Look for a video on countering double-knife attacks in the DLP library very soon.

Michael Janich