February 28th, 2012
07:00 AM ET

Why does America lead the world in school shootings?

Editor's Note: Dr. Frank Ochberg is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Michigan State University and former Associate Director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

By Frank Ochberg - Special to CNN

School shootings are far more frequent in America than in other countries, although terrible massacres have occurred in Russia, Israel, and several European nations. In the high-crime neighborhoods of inner cities, school turf is relatively safe. We have learned to harden the target and patrol with vigilance.

And even in those suburbs and small towns where spree killings have occurred, the rates, per capita, are lower now than in previous decades. School is a safe place - until, as in Chardon, Ohio, the unspeakable happens. Then, even though the risks are low, it is fair to ask, why does this still happen? Why here, in America?

Let's be clear. There is no single, certain answer to these questions. The possible factors include failure by classmates, parents and school officials to see the warning signs; bullying and revenge; serious mental illness; violent role models; drugs; access to guns, and a culture that condones extremism.

America has its share of these factors, but which are significant and which are more prevalent here than across the Atlantic?

Warning signs

Students do not become mass killers overnight. They nurse their fantasies and they leak evidence. Insults, threats and plans are posted on websites. Classmates often know when a student is ready to strike back. Parents hear rumblings and have accurate gut sensations.

Within our country there are communities and neighborhoods and school districts that are relatively cohesive, vigilant and able to discuss warning signs of danger. There are some communities that are not as well integrated. They must be coached and helped.

After Columbine and Virginia Tech and other notorious school shootings, new programs to share information were developed and several plots were nipped in the bud. This evolution of information sharing occurs in other countries, but it is difficult to measure, nation to nation, who is ahead and who is behind. I see no proof that America is losing this race to improve detection of warning signs.

Bullying and revenge

We have too many bullies and too many youngsters at the mercy of bullies. But we also have a growing system of anti-bullying school programs. Despite rumors to the contrary, the Columbine killers were not bullied. There is no evidence that America, compared to other nations, has more bullies, more bullying, more victimization, and more victims who are ticking time bombs, hatching plots of lethal vengeance. However, we certainly can and should promote school programs that protect all children from stalking, hazing, and the new, evolving forms of abuse: Ostracism and humiliation through electronic social networks.

When boys are bullied they may fantasize about revenge. To dream of turning the tables on a bully is common to all eras, most cultures, and the source of drama, film and literature from the Elizabethan stage to the spaghetti Western. But whether a slowly evolving fantasy of mass murder is a product of mental illness, of bullying or of other sources, there are usually signs along the way.

Major mental illness

We do not have more major mental illness than most other countries. But we may be less caring of our mentally ill. Back in the Kennedy era, we launched community mental health programs to care for people with schizophrenia and similarly severe disorders, including depression. We wanted treatment available close to home, with compassionate supervision and with proper medication. We tried to stop the revolving door to the asylum, and, in fact, we tore down the large state hospitals. Our best intentions failed.

The program was never fully funded and our American system of care leaves much to be desired. The most serious mental illnesses, schizophrenia and depression, often become overt in adolescence. A boy who is smart enough to get into a good college becomes deluded, obsessed, strange, scary - and he gets rejected, isolated and stuck in a fantasy world. Those fantasies can become lethal. These forms of mental illness are seldom the source of homicide (far more often they torment and demoralize the disturbed individual). But when they are dangerous to others, we need good answers.

We do not have a sophisticated system of care and protection. If we did, Mr. Cho would not have killed 32 students at Virginia Tech. But America is really no worse than other nations when it comes to the numbers of seriously mentally ill, of violently mentally ill, of insufficiently treated violent mentally ill school-age boys. (Yes, we are talking about boys and young men; by far, they are the school shooters).

Violent role models

Violent role models, on the street, in the cinema, in the news, have been with us for as long as I recall, and are not limited to America. Back in the '60s, an American counter culture leader said, "Violence is as American as cherry pie." But other parts of the world, such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the children's armies of Africa, the terrorist camps of the Middle East, have their violent role models. Machismo is not an American word, nor is Hooligan.

Drugs

We do have drugs and a drug culture and aspects of this problem are more severe here than in many other parts of the world. Crime is connected to the drug trade and this crime can spill into the school. But the type of school shooting that occurs in the suburb is seldom connected to this urban issue. There may be an indirect connection, since drug wars arm young soldiers of drug wars, and arms are a large issue in America.

Access to guns

Access to guns is a significant factor in American school shootings. If kids could not and did not bring guns to school, we wouldn't have Columbine, Virginia Tech or Chardon, Ohio. There have been crimes with knives and bats and fists. But school shootings are gun crimes. Kids with guns kill kids at school.

I do not think America is an extremist nation, compared to other nations with bloody histories and despotic leaders. True, we have polarized political speech, and some of that speech is about access to guns. But the reason we have an American school shooting problem that exceeds other nations has to do with access to loaded weapons by kids who should not have that access.

I'm not offering a gun control solution. But any serious attempt to prevent school shooting will have to attack the problem by determining who should not be armed, and preventing dangerous boys from bringing guns to school.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Frank Ochberg. For more on the subject of school shootings, Dr. Ochberg recommends reading reports by the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI.

Topics: United States • Youth

soundoff (2,259 Responses)
  1. Lobbyistgrl

    It's raining guns like it's raining men up in this bisch.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  2. brenkiwi

    Have to go with the gun control issue, when you look at the other factors here, gun control is the only one where the US truely differs from other developed countries. Not a big fan of michael moore, but he does a good job of investigating factros in bowling for columbine.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • dawn

      Also note – no other country drugs their kids like America is guilty of doing.... standby, pay attention and surely once again, like every other American school shooting, we will hear what Rx drugs this particular child was prescribed

      February 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
      • Debor

        dawn,
        I agree that drugs (legal and illegal) are prevalent and too available.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
  3. AZ

    I would say its the video games.. The kids are too much inclined to games and especially all fights and blood shed games..In the real life they want to be the heroes as they see in the games. But of course the cost is way too high for that

    February 28, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • michaeldw

      This kid didn't want to be a hero. He felt tormented and he needed to free himself. The only way he could see himself escaping whatever he felt was by killing those individuals.

      This wasn't just some kid who likes playing Call of Duty and j***ing off to Road House.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  4. michaeldw

    " Kids with guns kill kids at school."

    Liberal, biased opinion. Because all kids with guns kill kids at school. WRONG. The kid gave warning signs. They almost always do. It's the job of shrinks like this pud that posted this article to find the kids before this kind of thing happens.

    You can't take away arms in the U.S. It just won't happen. If there wasn't a gun available, the kid would have used something else. If someone wants something done bad enough, they'll do it.

    " Kids with guns kill kids at school." You're a joke Dr. Ochberg.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
    • AZ

      Please read my view above yours and tell me ;do you think we can blame video games too for all that is happening in our country ??/

      February 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
      • Debor

        AZ,
        I agree some video games are violent. Most kids realize they are "pretend", and not real. However, it's true that what you are exposed usually influences your thoughts and actions.

        February 28, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  5. WillyWalnuts

    80% of adults in rural areas of the US own guns – yet the lowest rate of violent crime, per capita, in the US is in rural areas. Guns in the hands of law abiding citizens deter crime – they don't cause it.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
    • michaeldw

      You have to look through the eyes of the people who don't see it this way. They think "why do you need a gun if you're not gonna shoot someone?"

      Would they prefer a Claymore perimeter defense system around every house?

      That'll keep the burglars out.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • jerrycc

      I live in rural / suburban Tn and believe me everyone owns guns and I don't even have to put my garage door down when I leave.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • Pritka

      Stands to reason, fewer people in rural America, less crime. Your point is not valid.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
      • WillyWalnuts

        You obviously don't understand the meaning of "per capita". Your argument is invalid !

        February 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • SDK

      As another someone that lives in a rural area (IA), we also have a high level of gun ownership. Most folk here use them for hunting and the occasional varmint. I believe part of the safey of the rural settin isn't so much gun ownership (although it could be a factor – why break into a house that almost certainly has a guns, unless of course you are a gun theif...) it is that neighbors still look out for each other. I had to live in a larger town for several years and didn't even know the names of my closest neighbors. I hated every minute of it. In rural/small town, they may be hicks but by God they are there for each other!

      February 28, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
      • SDK

        It's funny, I am in fact educated. Reading my own post, I feel that I had reverted to a more "folksy" manerism in my defense of country living. Time to go vist Jim-Bob down in the 'holler.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  6. Didlebug

    A 15 to 17 yr old kid can go on daddy shelf or get the key to his cabin etc etc etc....and get the gun and shoot somebody!! I feel bad for the parents sometimes!! what happens when your child gets good grades, act pleasant in public no signs of violence and boom they do something like this!!! blame the parents!! just admit it sometimes this thing call life makes people do crazy things and its no one fault but there own

    February 28, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  7. kB

    Answer is very easy ! You have so easy access to gun, so every nut can get one !

    February 28, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  8. jerrycc

    Too many parents on welfare and crank.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  9. Didlebug

    these shootings take place in good neighbor hoods thats what confuses the heck out of me!!! do poor kids take bullying better!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  10. Dejwe

    a race-less, non-organic society is ripe for this behavior, espeecially one that's anti-white and consumer based. Get used to it America.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  11. Jinxy

    Have to agree with the gun comments; when an immature kid can run down the street and get a gun for a few bucks he/she is more likely to settle the score with it.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  12. Epidi

    The statement about access to guns is true – but one that can be remedied if parents would just teach thier kids about gun safety, teach them what a gun can do & does. That will prevent accidents from happening as often as they do. Then LOCK UP THE GUN & KEEP THE AMMO LOCKED SEPERATLY. It isn't rocket science. It's responsible gun ownership.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  13. Island Jack

    I vote for taking away the guns. I have never had a need for one and I don't see why any civilized person would. Until someone can figure out the rest of the problems, take away the guns. There are idiots out there that should not be raising children, and these are the same people who usually have the guns.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • Epidi

      You must be city folk to make a stoopid comment like that.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  14. WillyWalnuts

    The State of Pennsylvania has some of the more lenient gun laws in the country. Almost 2 million hunters hit the woods every year "armed to the teeth". Rarely does anyone get shot – in fact, more die of a heart attack or a fall from a tree. The rate of death by firearm is less than the general population. Why is that?

    February 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • Epidi

      Because here in PA you are taught at a young age how to handle a firearm and how to use it correctly. After seeing the damage a gun does to a deer that you have to gut yourself, you're not likely to use it on a human being, unless your life depends on it.

      February 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  15. LJ

    So we can claim to be Number 1 in something regard education...

    Where does the United States rank in education among industrialized nations?
    The United States is currently 18th among the 36 industrialized nations. The United States is no longer the world leader in secondary education, according to the rankings of an international organization.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  16. go away

    too many bullies? how about too many sensitive adults who dont know how to let what is said not bother them? people need to grow a pair and quit caring what the population thinks of them. when they stop doing that, they will quit killing themselves and others.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  17. David

    This is because we do not allow teens to be themselves. For such a developed country, we are underdeveloped socially. It all starts with our leaders and public figures. The overweight teens that feel pressured by media and social media on how they look. The gay closeted teenager who feels pressured to be somebody he is not. They cannot get away from it. Gone are the days when homes were a sanctuary for them to feel safe. They come home and it's there on their facebook walls, in their emails. It truely is sad. There is just so much on the shoulders of our youths these days and it all starts with acceptance. Leaders such as Bachmann and Santorum should be ashamed of themselves for their stance on some of these values they stick to.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  18. Didlebug

    we lead the world in school shootings? really CNN....how many countries actually keep these records!! half of the worlds kids they teaching to be suicide bombers they not even in school that doesn't count huh!!! still my america......shut up cnn....

    February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  19. jerrycc

    I also blame the loving liberals in Hollywood who make movies like Heathers which glorifies murdering fellow students.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  20. CWinslow

    Not one of the writers ideas is just the pure size and percentage of schools that America has, Heck, Texas alone is bigger than most countries. They also fail to mention ethnic diversity and mixed social classes in Public schools, right away you know students of ethnicitys and social status will naturally group together thus leaving some students who don't really fall into any category or clique making them "loners".

    February 28, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  21. JDC

    I guess the only time prayer is allowed in school is when someone is shooting at you. Sad.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  22. rrrr llll

    To the folks commenting on gun laws and how the numbers don't pan out. It is enforcement of gun laws that matters. Look at NYC. When I grew up there gun violence was much more prevalent than today. Difference is now they enforce the hell out of the laws. Ask Plaxico Burris.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  23. Observer

    Why does the USA lead the world in school shootings?

    NRA

    February 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  24. Rick

    Anyone who thinks that guns are the problem with school shootings or any "gun crime" is a complete idiot. Guns do not kill people people do. If you believe that if guns werent available then crimes where guns were involved wouldn't have happened then you probably also believe that pencils make people misspell words, forks make people fat, and cigarettes make people smoke.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  25. AuldBob

    Guns are always an interesting topic in this country. Just reading the responses here one would think that some people would prefer to lose their family or maybe a couple of limbs rather than have their firearms taken away. Remember, guns don't kill people, people with guns kill people. The law says you can't take away the guns so you have to take away the people from that equation in order to stop the killing. Guns are a great solution for taking away the people!

    February 28, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  26. Me

    OK article as far as it goes, particularly on how the mental health system in America is broken and failed. But I am far less interested in the mindset of the victims of bullying and more interested in the mindset of those who bully.... WHY? WHY DO BULLIES DO WHAT THEY DO? And it is a fact that in schools girls are just as likely to bully others as boys are, though perhaps in a different way or style. The mindset of anybody, young or old, who would bully another person is so foreign to me I have a hard time simply comprehending it and its reasons/causes.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  27. Easy enough

    A. Easy access to firearms
    B. Snowflake generation full of false self-esteem often instilled by single mothers
    C. Two generations so far raised by ADHD-TV (I'm talking post-Seasame Street...Spongemeth anyone?) instead of parent(s)
    D. Children taught to resolve differences not through words or fists but weapons
    E. Easy access to firearms

    February 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  28. abby in Texas

    answer to question: because we glorify violence and have guns too readily and easily available...

    February 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  29. stonewall

    Why not do some actual investigative journalism and provide stats that reveal the number of shooting cases in schools across the US juxtaposed to the number of shooting cases in schools around the globe? This is why CNN has received countless criticism for its lack of investigative-fact-based-reporting. CNN.com is nothing more than a blog with relative opinions posing as real, ethical journalism.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • macphile

      It could be worse. It could be chron.com. This story was buried there yesterday and is a top item today. I wonder how many regular visitors said, "Huh? What school shooting?" Because yesterday's front page was all OSCAH FEVAH. I come to CNN to get news because there are actually *worse* outfits out there. One of the few good ones is Al-Jazeera, but I don't know how much they'd cover this kind of story.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  30. dips

    Isnt it quite obvious to all you Americans out there. In a safe society there is no need for citizens to carry guns. Free availability of guns is the only reason such kinds of shootings happen. A frustrated kid with access to a gun will obviously shoot others and it is impossible for the parents to monitor the kids 100% of the time.
    I am staying in Germany and hardly any of the citzens carry guns and I feel much safer here than in any country in the world esp. US.
    U guys seriously need to enact gun control laws wihtout getting ur egos up. Germany had a few cases of shootings like this and they sat down and tightened the laws . not like u folks where u keep turning a blind eye to gun control just cos u like to pamper ur egos by owning a gun. Whats the big deal in owning a gun anyways that u cannot do without it..
    Its not a real great achievement u know

    February 28, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply
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