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. tiredteacher

    We teachers have dealt with these kids for decades. Parents don't care about them. Neighbors don't care. Nobody goes to church anymore, so the student has never really heard of such a thing as sin, forgiveness, total love, submission to one who can fill an empty heart. Can't say to your student that you are praying for them or that you care for them. You would be offending them or opening yourself up as a possible molester. Can't say anything "offensive" such as, "You very much need some serious counseling and most probably medication of some sort." As a teacher, first I would be fired, and then I would have to pay for the treatment myself. Seriously. Can't discipline students. Can't "group" them into special needs groups. That would damage their self-esteem. Can't control them. Parents take offense to the teachers being "mean" to their kid. Principals have no power. School boards fear lawsuits. Lawyers like to make money and welcome the lawsuits. Judges have no backbone. Maybe it is time communities started allowing schools to CONTROL students. If an educator abuses that right, hang 'em.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      oh so believing in God makes it all OK does it? I thought the 9/11 terrorists were all big believers in God too...

      February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  2. erich2112x

    Guns don't kill people, people do. And so do chimps if you put a 9 mm in their hand.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  3. Bill Foonman

    The foundation of any strong democracy is a healthy and educated population not an economy based on unmitigated greed.

    Instead of educating and caring for its citizens, between its soap-opera mentality, under qualified and incompetent professional politicians and its evangelical desire to squander trillions of dollars bringing American-style democracy to the heathen masses, the U.S has all but bankrupted itself – both financially and morally.

    In other words, its priorities are all f%$&#d up and so is American society which is why kids shoot other kids.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  4. Joe

    Doh – it's because it is easy to get guns here. What on earth is this man paid for?

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

    WHY? LOL.. because we are a violent country just a few steps above the "third world" countries we so love to patronize. Because we are a country founded by people who were fleeing a regime and our inherent cultural psychology is one of FEAR and angst. WE jump at shadows and allow anything we think will "keep us safe" regardless of how ignorant the concept really is. WHY? Because we like it.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  6. Elite

    White Society is to Blame...

    all the covering up that goes on in this country GOD is coming and

    White people are being punished for all they have done in this country

    slavery= selling African American children away from their families, lynching African American's for no reason but skin color, still allowing racism to go on like people still don't recognize it. corporate white America getting over on the country.

    White America always saying blacks killing blacks...but ironically whites killing whites

    we are in our last days and these events will get worse it's in the BIBLE!!!!!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  7. Mark

    How on earth did this article miss the most critical point – POPULATION.

    How many other countries do you have to add together to match the population of the US. Now add up their issues.

    I'd love to see the author add some statistics on the rate of these crimes PER CAPITA vs the other countries mentioned. I suspect we'd still have more, but the gap may be a whole lot smaller than the article implies.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  8. Jason T

    This is not a case of access to guns or gun control. What it hast to do with is a lack of parenting!! Where were the parents?? How could they NOT see signs that this kid had serious problems. Where were the teachers and school administration...did they NOT see that this kid had major issues. Where were his friends...did they NOT see that this kid had major problems?? Everyone wants to turn a blind eye to the real issues that face America's youth. The American family is being destroyed by the NEED for a two and sometimes three income family. It has been destroyed by the fact that the media puts some much attention on celebrity and television puts so much importance on being famous and everyone getting their 15 minutes of fame. The family unit needs to be respected and cherished...it need to be reestablished that the family comes first. It comes before money, it comes before fame, it comes before all. If we make our families a priority all else will fall into place.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • 4peas

      True, but the difference here vs. Germany or somewhere else is the kid could put his hands on a loaded gun. it is the mentality of the gun culture. We have armed the paranoid, emotional fringe element in society.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  9. Brian

    The answer is simple. Our laws failed to serve its purpose. It is NOT harsh enough to deter criminals, people who facilitate such attacks (parents, suppliers of guns). If it's really hurt when they mess up, people will watch their guns. I would prefer they execute all involved in the crime.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Laws do not deter crime. Fear of punishment sometimes does but an armed victim can deter and often stops a crime.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
      • 4peas

        Yes you are wal"nuts" No armed adult would have prevented these three deaths in this scenario. Perhaps a law that actually holds gun owners accountable for the safekeeping of their firearms from children in their home would have prevented this from happening. But the gun lobby does not want to be accountable in any way.

        February 28, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
  10. Wildone

    "Junior's" 16 and out of control. He disrespects his parents, his teachers, and anyone in authority. The only friends he has are other kids like him. He plays violent video games and spends most of his time in his room. Everyone says he's "no good" and is nothing but trouble. He talks about how much he hates school and other people and that someday he's going to "get even". His parents try to stay out of his way to avoid confrontation. They can't wait until he moves out of the house.

    There are thousands upon thousands of "Juniors" out there who are preparing to create mayhem while society seeks to find something (guns) or someone (bullies) to blame it on. There are no easy answers, but recognizing the signs that these kids need help before they explode may stop the carnage before it's too late.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  11. Craig

    The author mentions a fair number of factors, but they are all similar throughout the western world except that:

    1) Americans have more access to guns
    2) Americans are more homicidal (check the homicide rates of other western nations vs USA)

    It is a pretty bad combination

    February 28, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  12. Richard

    Whenever children get shot in school some idiot with a column has to write about it. The rest of the time kids dying in the street don't matter. It's simply not newsworthy.

    IT'S ENTERTAINMENT.

    Yuup. As far as the news vultures are concerned this kind of thing is a hot news cycle and can't be missed. Photos and hot video of sobbing school mates and hysterical parents are top shots for the day. Tomorrow or the next day – who cares! Some starlet is wearing a dress made of fresh meat or tin foil and that's the big news then. The problem is that the victims have to live with the wreckage of the event for the rest of their lives – until the ten year anniversary when some network hot shot decides to do a human interest story on 'how are they getting on now'. Vultures, the lot of them.

    Prayer. Dare I say it, the lack of prayer is one BIG reason for the gun fights in schools along with a lot of other things that are wrong and just can't seem to get fixed. When I was young we started every day with prayer and the pledge of allegiance. The prayers never let us down even if Uncle Sam did. There are some who fuss at the idea of starting every day of school with prayer, but to them I say clearly that we didn't have these problems when God looked out for us.

    Leave God out of the mix and you get BIG problems – and lots of vultures afterwards to clean up the mess (at least on camera).

    February 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Reply
    • 4peas

      You gotta be kidding me. Allowing children access to loaded guns is not the main cause? it is lack of prayer? And is it ok for the Muslim children to bring their prayer mats to school?

      February 28, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  13. sergisdaman

    If we take guns away, which will never happen, look at the way China massacres children and people, with a damn kitchen knife.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  14. Joe

    I blame all the niqqers and crackheads out there – us white folks are blameless. well apart from this incident obviously...

    February 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
    • Jason

      Wow!

      February 28, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  15. Canadian

    To the guy who thinks that Canadian gun laws are similar to U.S. gun laws, you couldn't possibly be more mistaken. You have to take multiple courses to even qualify to take a test to own a handgun. Then, you have to apply to buy a handgun, go through a background check and screening and you must belong to a registered gun club which is the only place legal for you to shoot a handgun. Also, before you can leave your house with that gun, you must call the firearms office which is run by the government to let them know that you are going to the gun range. It must have a trigger lock, be locked in a case and be separate from the ammunition in your trunk. That gun must also be stored at home in the same way, but instead of a trunk it must be locked in a gun cabinet without any ammuntion. By owning that gun, you also give the authorities the right to come into your home to check that your gun is being stored in the proper fashion. I have never heard of anything in the U.S. come anywhere close to these laws. I find it unbelievable that there are people walking around your country in this day and age with a handgun tucked away somewhere. They are built to kill a human being. And to be able to purchase assault rifles? Who out there without a screw loose thinks those are actually good ideas. By the way, where do you think criminals get many of their guns from. By breaking into homes of gun owners. When was the last time you heard about someone carrying a gun that saved the day? Don't get me wrong, I love the U.S. and am a gun owner myself, but the gun laws are outdated by about 200 years.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  16. Peter Warren

    Compare the usage of Psych drugs in US school children versus the use of them in other countries with the school shootings in those countries. It is NOT complicated. The only difference is a few billions in profits, but the cost of the profits is just a few dead kids so who cares? Statistics talk.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  17. Danny Vanny

    Ohh.. I am going to hide my gun on top of the closet, my kids will never find out!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  18. Chad

    The problem is gun legislation. The supreme court has deemed that God gave us the right to own guns, just as the founding fathers deemed God gave us the right to own human beings. Flawed reasoning, flawed results.
    In civilized countries like Australia, when they have a single massacre, they outlaw guns, as they did in 1996. Problem solved.
    Until we as a culture decide that we need to get rid of all guns that are not used actively for hunting purposes, we will be condemned to this sort of horror.
    You can look for warning signs, do psychological analyses, you name it... until we take guns away, we will continue to see these headlines.
    Obviously there are occurrences that can be singled out in other countries, but I would imagine that America has more gun violence than the rest of our allies put together.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
  19. bob tuggey

    In countries all over the world, children know that the way out of poverty, the way to success, is through education. They will outwork American students by 5 times. From First Standard they are aware of 'class standing'. Class standing and 'qualifying examination' determine who goes to college. They are so focused on learning, they have no time to 'bully', in most places violence is unimaginable. But here, bullying and violence are not socially acceptable, they are socially encouraged. In fact, in developing countries, 'bullying' will not be allowed, it will be beat out of you.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  20. Alison

    When we moved back to OK last year, my son had a playdate at a new friend's home in Edmond. I had been able to get to know the Mom in advance...she was the PTO President at our elementary school. When my son came home and told me that his friend showed him his Dad's guns, I freaked. I said, "Weren't his Dad's guns locked up in a gun safe?" My son replied "Yes, but the boy knew the combination to open it." The boy goes hunting with his Dad and has some experience with guns, but this was unacceptable. Of course, I let the Mom know my son could not play there again if there was access to guns. Probably one of the scariest kids with a gun, is the one who THINKS he/she knows alot about guns. How often do you think this happens in America?!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
    • Buk Lau

      @Alison if you can't trust your own child with firearms, that says more about you and your son that it does about his friend and his parents. Firearms don't act on their own.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
    • BelgianWoman

      Scary story! Ii think it was a very wise decision to not let your son go play there again. Next time this kid might want to give a "demonstration".

      February 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  21. Elite

    People please.......there are other ways for people to harm people......guns are just easier

    next kids will find ways to create bombs and blow up schools.......society needs to wake up and bring love to these children....all they see is is HATE in the media, WAR etc.....America doesn't love America

    it's so sad that schools and jobs wait until someone come in and shoot the place up before they open there eyes and see something was going on.

    where I used to work they were blind sided to workplace violence and bullying...they won't learn until the person being harassed has enough and take matters into there own hands.

    school's, parents etc.. won't wake up until they start paying attention to their children and be positive active role models in their lives.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  22. sayitstr8

    well, let's see – why are most people able to put on butter with a butter knife? well, maybe it has to do with the fact that there is a) butter and b) a butter knife. why so many gun killings? well, a) guns exist and are easily available, b) the culture promotes guns as a solution, c) see a

    the question is not why are there so many killings, after all – but why so many gun killings. so, answer the question and get it right. then, change the nation before it's your child either killing or being killed. and next time someone tells you about 'the right' to bear arms, tell them it was a grammatical error – it was supposed to read 'the right to arm bears', because given what we Americans are, those bears need it.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  23. Jason

    With all things it points to parenting or the lack there of and alas the individual perpitrator themselves. Our society has had guns or access to them for hundreds of years, people with mental issues for hundreds of years, people who break the law no matter what for hundreds of years and also people who will use every opportunity to point the finger at another group as the culprit (i.e guns, gun owners, government, parents blah blah blah)

    When this kid was walking around in the days, weeks, months leading up to this his parents/custodial parents didn't know him enough to think something was wrong, or his Uncle who had no idea his firearm had miraculously grew feet. All around there are issues in our society that contributed to this........yes including guns.

    However with the growing number of shrinking police departments and budgets alike and the in-ability for the police to protect and serve all its citizens, my firearm protects my home and the people whom dwell within it. My children have been taught from day one what a firearm is and why it is there. Our society by no means is peaches and cream but many countries have weird social norms that have lead to violence regrettably.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  24. KT

    American kids have access to guns. Why do they pull the trigger? Because they can. Our troubled adolescents probably suffer no more and no less angst than troubled adolescents in other countries. Kids in other countries may have the desire to shoot their peers, but they can't act on the desire as easily as kids here can.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  25. justshsuhtjif

    Exploitive capitalist culture thrives on fear, and fear leads to violence. See Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  26. Elite

    take away all these electronics and make these kids stay in the house and read some books.

    electronics have messed these kids up facebook, myspace, twitter etc...

    February 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  27. John

    You anti gun folks are so insanely inept in your arguments. First the author throws Israel in as a place with gun access, but implies a school shooting problem. Well I have been there and they do not have a school shooting problem. I spoke with a young man that was in a high school class carrying a M2 carbine, much like the one i just purchased prior to our meeting at Akko, Israel. Not many massacres there, the nuts usually get shot right off the bat. Only two notable school shootings since the 1970's both but invader Muslims and the second one was killed by a student within minutes- the first cop on the scene would not enter the building in order to secure the entrance. So please people know the facts (a word foreign to some) before you blog. And I firmly recommend the arming of in school persons- thank God we are starting some of that here in the great Republic of Texas!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  28. marzoz10

    I haven't read the article yet, only the headline, and here is my response: BECAUSE WE HAVE SUCH EASY ACCESS TO GUNS!!!! Right to defend our family, blah blah, 2nd amendment (for outdated reasons) blah blah. Why isn't a family in, oh say, France not too concerned with defending their home?? BECAUSE THE CRIMINALS DON'T HAVE EASY ACCESS TO GUNS!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  29. Sara

    Why does america lead in this feild? Because america doesn't want to sort out the bullying issue in schools. You remove the motive, you remove consequence. Saying that guns are the issue will not cure the disease, it only treats the symptom of bullying. If they don't have guns, they will use other weapons. In the mind of the bullied (i speak fom experience) to stop the bulling (when the schools refuse to intervene) there are only 2 options that run through the mind, remove the bully or remove yourself. Obviously the shooter had no other choice coz none cared. Beefing up security at his school would not have changed his mind. Schools should really start dealing with the real issues.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  30. Mike

    We have a lack of confidence / self defense problem, not a bully problem.. Bullies have been around for ever. But because we are so PC in this country, we tell everyone that violence is not the answer, turn the other cheek, and all that b.s. What we need to teach our kids is how to stand up for themselves no matter how big or small. Bullies don't pick on people who fight back, but rather the people who keep taking it. Our kids need help in self confidence.. I'm sure that would at least start to help.

    February 28, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
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