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. Tee

    Blacks.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • Karen

      most school shootings are done by whites.............

      February 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
      • JOSE0311USMC

        KAREN, IS TRUE...WHITE UPPER CLASS KIDS DO THE SHOOTINGS AND THE BULLYING...PARENTS GIVE THEM EVERYTHING SO THEY DON'T HAVE MUCH TO DO BUT TO SPEND HOURS ON FACE BOOK, PLAYING VIDEO GAMES..,,,NO ONE IS MENTIONING THE LACK OF RESPECT...STOP BULLYING WEAKER KIDS.

        February 28, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
      • Gabriel

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        July 7, 2014 at 6:38 am |
      • Denis

        You are right, that statement is a form of gun cotnrol. It is most likely there for a purpose, perhaps at some point in time an individual has failed in the first line of gun cotnrol, one's own common sense, and precipitated the need for such a statement on the license. However speaking of purpose, what is the purpose of a gun? Perhaps this is another discussion on another board but a gun is a tool for death, it's intention is to kill. To intend to carry a tool for death into a densly populated social area again is a failure of the individuals cotnrol over self, or lack of common sense.

        July 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm |
      • Sai

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        July 25, 2014 at 10:02 pm |
  2. PeteEpic

    Guns, guns, guns, kill, kill, kill! It's the American way! Cartoons, movies, video games, the news! We love it! Of course our kids kill! We train them from the get go. Were so violent we have no clue. Like alcoholics and drug users. "Don't blame my whiskey!"

    February 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  3. John K. Hewitt

    There is a simple answer to the question as to why there is so much shooting in US schools. Most responses cite easy availability of GUNS! I beg to disagree. Once PRAYER was taken out of schools, the vacuum created had to be filled. GUNS which were ALWAYS easily available BEFORE PRAYER was taken out of schools, are now taking the place of religious and moral ethos. Bring back PRAYERS and the GUNS will GO!!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • DPCFOH

      Many school shootings occurred back when there was prayer in school ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_shooting) so I don't think that'll help much.

      February 28, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  4. scrag

    A person could run a car over a crowd of kids getting out of school or drive 60 mph into the cafeteria and kill more kids than a gun. The gun is just the most available tool, and banning guns just bans them from people who will use them legally – obviously.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  5. Ted

    Let' start with the one and only cause. The lack of GOD in the daily life.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
    • Monge

      I agree with you. People want to remove God yet they cannot really provide the direction for the youth bec. They're busy working and doing their own thing ad nt wanting to face their own mistakes as parents. Kids grow up uncaring ,neglected ,depress and apathetic. They go to school to face other kids who 'll make them feel much worse and more inferior. There's lack of support,caring ,friendship and kindness in the school here. I went to school in other country and here in USA. I can tell the big difference. These kids who makes other kids feel crappy grow up and join the workforce where they continue to make people they meet and work with feel inferior .This makes going to work on a daily basis suck. These people are just the bullies at school who grew up ,still bullying as an adult. Lateral violence. There seems to be a sense of always wanting to be superior over somebody just to make themselves feel good.by stepping on other people,they feel stronger. Such a sad culture.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  6. canucken

    Who's number 1? We are!

    February 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  7. jun

    In the Philippines the security guards require people to present their bags for checking for weapons and explosives before they enter a school, mall or any public or private building or transport. It also involves body frisking for concealed weapons too. Why is it not being done in the USA? Rights issue? Here people just prefer to be safe than dead with rights.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  8. joseph B

    The problem is there are too many gun nuts in America who are so fanatical and lie about the issue that there can never be any intelligent debate about gun control that would prevent teenagers, crazy's, and other dangerous people from getting access to dangerous weapons that can kill.
    That is why the USA will always lead the world in senseless gun deaths like school shootings.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  9. fumofos

    We're finally the best at something and everyone has a problem with it...

    February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  10. steven

    The crazed American mind: "TheRealCitizens says: If you try to take my right to guns, heck, if you try to take my guns, i will shoot back." This is the NRAs fault. The NRA makes people fear to live without a gun for protection.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  11. jayman419

    We should have gun classes in school, starting in elementary. We have an irresponsible gun culture. I was raised in a military family, I was trained with and had access to my father's firearms from before I was strong enough to pull the slide to check the chamber. I was also bullied a lot at school. And because I was taught responsible gun handling, it never even crossed my mind to shoot up the people who annoyed me.

    Any let's be honest here.. that's all bullying is, an annoyance. School sucks for everyone. You get through it and you get on with your life. Or you act like a little coward, and let the warden and your PO make all your decisions from now on.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  12. Josh

    Cho killed 32 other people and himself. Not 37. That's a pretty hard fact to screw up there CNN.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  13. Josh P

    Schools should be indoctrinated with more of the latest nonviolent understandings to help solve more of today's problems. The quick fix society is supported by guns, and all the other hoopla that is completely ridiculous, and unfounded. Having some type of class, or training about nonviolence should be a mandatory thing in all schools in today's world. We need to catch up, and set precedence with the mayhem. This also is not a violation of people's liberty as some like to so easily lambast. Better heads have to take charge, and learn that amongst all safety is the first among all other priorities. Proactive approaches should be the norm, not the exception.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  14. Pam Beach

    There's a really simple reason this happens more often in America: everyone here goes to school. If this kid had lived in Singapore, China, or any of the other places with which politicians love to compare our test scores, this kid wouldn't have been in high school. Those places don't have alternative schools. They have coal mines and ditches to dig. They also don't have MMR, non-reading students taking high school literacy exams, but that's another article on which to comment.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  15. JP

    because ignorant, intolerant parents and adults , through their deeds and words, teach kids to be intolerant and ignorant. just look at this current GOP presidential campaign for examples.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  16. adi87

    The biggest problem is that kids aren't afraid of parents/teachers. In this non-personalized public school system, the teacher-student relationship is dead - it's not a human relationship which involves love, respect and a broad sense of community . It's a dead machine-like interaction where neither side cares about the other. I don't find too many public school teachers who actually care about their students on a personal level.

    Where I went to school (not in the United States), if a kid got bullied, all he had to do was tell the principal, and the school would get both sets of parents involved and resolve the problem. Generally, kids were pretty afraid of the parents and teachers, and the bully would be never go undisciplined. We had cases where kids got suspended/expelled for bullying/teasing/hazing/hurting other students. Also, since we had a private school system, if a kid faced a problem in one school, he could always change schools - the parents were free to make that decision.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
    • jayman419

      You have a point. We should bring back azwhuppins. Kids learn to think of themselves as untouchable, they learn to think that just because they're bigger or stronger or come from a wealthier family that they actually are somehow better. This is probably the only situation I've ever actually encountered where the beatings should continue until morale improves.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  17. Rocco

    The easy access to guns.....need you ask?

    February 28, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  18. Cameron

    The US and Canada have very similar laws for gun ownership yet, since the 1960's, the US has had more than 10 times the amount of school shootings than Canada. In addition, in 2010, Canada's intentional homicide rate 1.68 (per 100,000 people) – the US's was 4.8.

    It can be many things, but it's not simply a gun access problem.
    Essentially I think it's a problem with popular culture in the US. It pushes violence and stupid acts in favor of 'what the public wants' and ignores simple, incredibly important, values like compassion, cooperation/collaboration, and free-thinking/intelligence.

    (Based on my calculations of estimated IQ and intentional homicide rates for developed countries, there is a correlation between higher IQ with lower intentional homicide rates.)

    February 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  19. George Bush

    Why does America lead the world in school shootings? Every houses in USA have guns in their home.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      The kids that carry out these shootings are typically NOT the ones that were raised learning to respect and how to property use firearms.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  20. Jim

    Perhaps the real problem lies in a violent history

    February 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  21. Gil

    Historically, Americans have solved a problem by using violence and making it acceptable as long as the person is or thinks he is, on the right side. We're brought up to cheer for the guy wearing a white hat and shooting the baddie or getting revenge. With TV news filled with images of civil wars, bombings and murderous actions, with a whole generation mindlessly playing the most violent computer games imaginable where there is no, I repeat no hint of responsibility for one's actions or what the end results might be, is it any wonder that a child would resort to violence to solve his real or perceived problems. Easy access to drugs and guns, irresponsible parents and crowded schools are all part of the situation but unless kids are taught that there will always be a reaction or a price to pay for their actions this sort of thing will continue. But for example bullying will never go away, the stronger chick is always going to try to kick the weaker one out of the nest, it is nature, the survival of the fittest, But it is conflict resolution without the use of violence that must be championed at home, in the school, in the movies and by our politicians.

    February 28, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  22. Tony

    From WIKI:
    School attacks in the People's Republic of China
    A series of uncoordinated mass stabbings, hammer attacks, and cleaver attacks in the People's Republic of China began in March 2010. The spate of attacks left at least 21 dead and some 90 injured. Analysts have blamed mental health problems caused by rapid social change for the rise in these kind of mass murder and murder-suicide incidents.[1]

    February 28, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  23. Jonathan

    Didn't the Columbine kids have propane tank bombs hidden in the school? Its not just guns. Guns don't kill people, mentally ill people with guns kill people. We need to figure out why people have these issues..

    February 28, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  24. micook

    Maybe, because most little kids from foreign countries are serving in their military rather than school!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  25. tanya

    Let's not lie to ourselves. What is our main goal in this country? (Ponder for a moment...) Yep, that's right–to get rich. What is most important in family life? Yes, that's right–getting rich. Do not be surprised when you do not make time for your kids, you teach them no values (except getting rich) and you have no idea what's going on in their life that your kids have mental problems. But it's OK, because you just got a giant screen TV and a brand NEW car!!!!! When I grew up I wore all hand-me-downs but my parents took time to teach me right from wrong. Nowadays, kids have ipads, ipods, iphones but noone takes the time to teach them right from wrong or what's important in life. Don't be surprised when these kids develop mental problems.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  26. paul

    I don't know, because most countries where just about anyone can own a gun don't have schools? Or maybe they don't count when a Taliban Militant blows a school up or beheads all its staff as the same sort of thing? I'm not saying I'm against the right to bear arms, I support it as a hunter, but its a pretty stupid question.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  27. pat

    Cliques and a "we aren't going to take it" because school's bullies are usually the "darlings" of the school, and a student feels there is no other recourse. Obviously there is but in the mind of a child.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  28. p-body

    Even I had those fantasies of mass murder, and I am a Buddhist pacifist. It is the school systems coupled with our general society that breeds certain types of sociopaths by leaving them no option but to become one

    February 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  29. Robert Gavila

    T. J. Lane's case is eerily similar to Alyssa Bustamente. Again, in an effort to protect pharmaceutical companies, the Judge will lock up and throw away the key on a kid. Prozac and similar drugs remove a sense of conscience from kids, who may not have a fully formed sense of right and wrong to begin with. Protect the drugs, lock up the kids. And so the real sad part is that their victims (Elizabeth Olten and the rest) died for nothing.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  30. Jo

    I have always believed that exposing children to continous violance on TV, entertainment, movies, etc. is a major cause in aggresion. We need to show children, by example and words, how to resolve differences without the use of violance. An overhaul in what Hollywodd is producing these days is sorely in need.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
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