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. Ana

    Coming from Balkans: the main difference is PARENTING. Americans fail to tech children about good and bad. In my country parents spent much more time with kids – starting with 1 year of maternity leave. Children need to have system of values BEFORE they start school. Trust me.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      Total BS. If parenting was actually responsible I think we'd see more than 1 incident per year. Seriously?

      February 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
      • 2tired2care

        You sound like a bad parent to me.

        February 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • Kyak

      So spot on!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  2. James in Tennessee

    Kids kill each other because in this PC society fighting is not allowed anymore without crazy penalties like 1 year expulsions and arrests. In my day, you fought got a paddling shook hands and it was over. Not anymore.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  3. Mike

    Would it be too much to ask that when making a claim that "America leads the world in school shootings", a person might actually offer stats that back up that claim? Something, anything that show the statement to be true?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • PS

      Unless you have been hiding under a rock, do you not watch any news every night? Every news broadcast has at least the top five items about some gun related violence at the top! Who needs stats?

      February 28, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      People who need stats are those that would rather not "just take someone's word for it" Great, you watch american TV. The simple fact that you think that informs you of what is happening in every other country is amusing.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
      • PS

        American TV has a lot of international news too my friend! I have visited other nations and watched their top five news items, and believe me they do not have mayhem and chaos on them! This country needs to wake up from the brainless violence in our streets and schools!

        February 28, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • JeramieH

      The news cherry-picks sensational stories for drama. They're in the business to grab eyes and sell ads. Their stories hardly represent a valid slice of America.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  4. Raammson

    Easy Access to guns and the simple thought that bullying is ok. The columbine due were bullied which this article denies. Bullying isn't ok and they need to be punished or else more things like this will happen.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
    • Dave23

      Don't give that crap that bullying is causing this. I agree that people should be cordial to others and treat them as they would like to be treated, but we are raising a society of pansies. People are losing the ability to deal with problems because we are constantly enabling them too. Bullying is nothing new to society, it has been going on ever since somebody noticed that somebody else is different. The difference from then and now is we coddle our youth way too much. If anything a little bullying is a good thing, it puts people in their place. I work in a small school that covers grades 7-12. I constantly see 7th and 8th graders lipping off and talking trash to juniors and seniors in high school. In my day that didn't happen, the idiots that did do that ended up in a dumster or getting roughed up after school, and that stopped the behavior. Now if a jr. or sr. in high school were to do that they would be expelled for "BULLYING" when the kid that got "BULLIED" actually deserved what he got.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  5. Dave23

    Because we sensationalize stories like these in the news. That is why this happens. If a poor lonely person in school wants to get attention all they have to do is look in the news archives and see that school shootings make quite a splash in the media.

    In today's world we need a more responsible media than what we have in place today.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  6. Cyg

    I bet if you asked Sanitorium, he'd say it's because Democrats went to college for an education instead of going to church and staying stupid...(we'd all be perfect angels and saints if we chose the church path, never a GOP war ever, etc).

    February 28, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  7. asad.khanpour

    Because USA is the more criminal country and the main sponser of trourism and extrimism in the world

    February 28, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Strap on that suicide vest and go get em Asad

      February 28, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Reply
  8. Kat

    Kids need to learn how to stand up for themselves. The "positive reinforcement" thing is all well and good, but if you want the kids to stop being bullied it has to start at the stereotyped "victim". The bully's not going to change. Bullies pick on people for plenty of reasons, but one of them is because they may just enjoy it or think it's okay. They won't pick on someone who fights back. It's not as much fun. Unfortunately, I have caught myself being a bully in the past and can speak from experience. If you make yourself vulnerable, you get picked on. If you don't defend yourself and insist upon turning the other cheek and/or telling yourself that you're "above fighting", the problem will get worse because it looks like you're just being weak. Bullies pick on weaklings. Kids have to make themselves tough. No crying in public, no being a big fat chicken. That's what a bully sees when you say "I'm not going to fight with you". They see a chicken. Someone scared. You have to defend yourself and have confidence, if you rely on "security" and teachers in schools and "turning the other cheek" YOU WILL BECOME A VICTIM. Bullies don't see "virtues". They see weakness.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • albert

      You are a weak person if you believe that nonsense. Bullies are the way they are because of physical and mental abuse at home. Yes their pathetic parents are the problems! That is the problem that needs to be fixed!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
      • carpeminutam

        You come across as bully with that post.

        February 28, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  9. Sabiduria

    This is so sad. I wonder when this stuff will stop? Bullying. It won't until parents, school officials, and churches start to mediate this situation. More than that, WE i.e. society needs to take bullying seriously. Back in the day if someone bulled you; you either fought back or ran away. Sure, some even took it a step further and brought things to school in order to hurt the person that bullied them, but never to this extreme. Why? Plain and simple. Not enough God in our kids lives, and the places in which they spend 80% of their time i.e. school. Further, our children have gotten desensitized to death and killing. Alot of times the bullied becomes the bullier. I know that because I was bullied. I was one of dozens of kids that was bullied by this monster in middle school. He was a 7th grader just like me. God knows, what was going on in his house that caused him to be so evil to others. I brought a knife to school and was going to stop him from messing with me. He was a big, black, tall, rusty, and extremely mean. Even the teachers were scared of him. It was God's grace that that the knife fail out of my backpack, and a student told on me. I was sent to the principle's office and when he asked why I had a knife I lied. I was too scared to tell him that this guy was terrorizing me along with other kids in the school. (Kids are scared to talk ya'll) Needlessness to say, after that day the boy never bothered me again, but I wonder what would have happened if I didn't have God on my side...covering me. Moral of this story...Bullying is REAL. It needs to be addressed, but more so we need to get God back in the schools.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
  10. misterjack

    I say put cameras in every classroom and common area even if teacher don't like them.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • Dave23

      I am a teacher, and I speak for most teachers when I say we would more than welcome camera's in the classroom. It would be much easier to point out to a parent how their kids are behaving in the classroom if we were ALLOWED to do this.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      We had a physics teacher try to install a camera in his classroom because the previous teacher was let go over a "he said, she said" situation. The district lawyer told him to take it down... it was too much trouble to archive the video feed for the necessary legal record-keeping requirement than simply fire him if any question came up.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Reply
  11. albert

    The answer is easy; It's because America has a lot of make pretend Christians that actual believe it is a God given right to own a Gun. They leave these guns laying around for their children to find and use.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • PS

      Hard to make out if these pretend Christians love life, love God, hate life or just hate themselves too much to care for anything! Or may be it is just their brain cells not working with all that infusion of religion!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • 2tired2care

      Did you see where the 4 yr old shot and killed his 3 yr old brother? Just happened last week. Mother left the gun on top of a dresser.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
    • carpeminutam

      Sure. Blame it on religion. Its the cool thing to do. Its the new pink.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Reply
  12. 2tired2care

    We're #1, we're #1, we're #1

    February 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  13. Sabiduria

    I want to add it is okay for kids to stand up for themselves but I'd rather a kid to learn how to talk it out first. Then punch it out if they have to, but NEVER shoot it out.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  14. Joe

    This article has it all wrong and typical media bull. The reason America leads the world in school shootings is because we are a spoiled brat nation of people and have an extreme liberal way of looking at the real issue.

    The fact is other countries school system is there for learning and learning only. Their approach is strictly a learning center. The clothes are the same, the food is the same and everything is about the lesson being learned at any given day.

    American schools are all about socializing, interacting with the cool groiup of people, who is doing who and who has what. It is all superficial, spolied, liberal mentality that produces bullying in school and in our society.

    Make all the kids wearluniforms. make all the kids eat the same lunch. make all the kids ride a school bus. Eliminate any type of social activity and just focus on education when in school.

    We have too many social events, prep rally's, school dances etc... We have too many was that people can be picked on for the clothes they wear or for the crowd they socialize with.

    Take all this away and have school as a place where the brain absorbes eduction and we too will see a drop i this type of event.

    Keep producing a school enviroment where school is a cool place to hang out with friends and socialize and we will continue to not only fall behind in education, but struggle with those more fortunate in life to pick on those who have less.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
    • Someone

      You raise an intriguing point really which bears some thought. However, to expect that all problems woulkd go away is unrealistic. EVen though I may wear the same clothes, personality and physical attarction also enter into the bullying equation. There will always be kids who will pick on the less attarctive one, the socially unskilled one, and no uniform or similarity of experience will take that away unless we totally regiment the schoills like prisons or military boot camp.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  15. Terry Moore

    The question is WHY...The answer is BECAUSE we sell guns without discrimination, with only profit in mind, with no sense of control, with millions of deluded citizens who believe what the NRA feeds them, because we are not men enough to wnvision a society without lethal weapons,because our culture is based upon violence and death, because we cherish everything morbid and cannot celebrate life.. because we are a sick nation.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm | Reply
  16. tendertype

    Is it getting worse or is it because of the "advancement" of media over the last 30 years that publicizes it more than ever?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  17. Al Anton

    We wanted God OUT of our schools - and He left. What do you expect?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • 2tired2care

      Keep god out of this. He owns a handgun and plans to use it.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  18. JohnRJohnson

    We are #1 in school shootings because we have more guns in this country than anywhere else in the world. Between that and de-sensitizing ultra-violent video games, I amazed we don't have even more. There have been 52 murders within a 4-mile radius of my daughter's high school since 2006. Many of the victims were kids. But don't dare suggest that we rethink gun control, because too many men in this country see their guns as an extensor of their manhood. They hide behind the 2nd Amendment, a law which most of them do not understand, to justify owning dozens of weapons, most of which are specifically designed to kills lots of human beings in a very short period of time. It's part of our culture, so it doesn't surprise me at all that immature, troubled kids often conclude that guns are useful problem solving tool.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  19. Nat

    OMG!! It's called GUNS!!!
    Even the medias are afraid to call it for what it is, your guns lobbyist are one of the most powerful groups in the US if not THE most. I lived in the states (loved it) and as a canadian I can certify that our youth over here are just like US boys and girls, no difference. They watch the same shows, play the same games, experience bullying...Yet I can only recall two incidents like this one in the last 50 years!
    THE ONLY DIFFERENCE is that guns are rarely owned here, they are sold out of the view and few specialty hunting stores. They are regulated and not easy to purchased.
    Gun lovers always use the founding fathers...The fact is these men lived in a different era, where everyone needed personal protection to protect their land and property. This is no longer the case. In fact, what the gun lovers always fail to mention is that guns are very very rarely used for personal protection, instead domestic violence, family disputes and regularly mass shooting like this one accounts for what these guns end up being used for.
    Guns are for police officers and the likes not for the general population, and as long as the greed of the huge gun industry continues to thrive mass shooting like this one will continue as well.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
    • PS

      They are not called gun "lovers"! They do not "love" anything, including their own children! We call them gun "schizos" or "nuts" because they are always paranoid about everything! They carry their loaded guns with their bulged out eyes, constantly wondering if their forefathers' given rights will let them shoot anything that moves!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Reply
    • JM

      I agree but you are going to get a barrage of dissent. People seem to think that easy access to guns (and guns everywhere: in the home, on the street) contribute to violence...not at all. Delusion.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Reply
    • JeramieH

      We've had guns since the founding of America. Probably moreso in the past when they were necessary for hunting for survival. If you were right, the nation would have already killed itself 200 years ago.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
    • GoZippyGo

      Criminals seek out defenseless victims and, unlike you, I choose not to be defenseless.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
    • OhBoy

      THIS IS TOO MUCH. PLEASE LETS ASK THE LAWMAKERS TO BAN GUNS COMPLETELY IN USA. I HAVE BEEN SHOT WHILE WRITING THIS. THIS IS TOO MUCH. SOMEBODY HELP ME! 🙂

      February 28, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  20. CMGM

    Why is there no mention of the legal drugs that are pushed on our nation's children, sometimes as early as age 2 or 3. No mention of the fact that many of the teens involved in school shootings are on psych meds and have had their brains severely tampered with. Overmedicated kids, teens and American adults. It's sick and it's sad. One day the drug companies will be investigated for pushing drugs on these poor kids and their parents. All in the name of $ profit. Sick, tragic and downright evil. There are a few lawsuits popping up around the county now, but one day the truth will come out! Big Pharm kill$ many!

    February 28, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  21. saywhat?

    This has to be one of the most uneducated opinions I have ever read. Guns and ammo are no more accessible than they were in the '60's and 70's. The problem is zero-tolerance. Unlike the 60's and 70's if you fight back against a bully you are the one who is suspended, expelled or arrested.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  22. GoZippyGo

    From 1979 through 2006, gun deaths fell by 40% (per capita) for White children (18 & under) but rose by 55% for Black children. The chance of a child dying at shool is less than dying on a bicycle. So what?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  23. RecoveringRepub

    When a kid comes to school with a parent's gun, I hope the parents of the victims sue the parents of the shooter. I hope prosecutors also charge the parents with contributory negligence. According to the FBI statistics, if you have a gun in your house for "protection" it is 22 times (not percent, times) more likely the gun will be used by a member of the household against someone they know instead of an intruder. So spouses get shot, kids get killed accidentally playing, kids take it to school, etc. Of course, the same idiots who think "Those statistics don't apply to me", are the same people who think they can beat a casino and are shocked when they lose all of their money in Vegas or don't understand why they haven't won the lottery after playing all these years.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  24. Mike

    America the world leader? Canada has had 29 deaths from school shootings. America has had 234. America has roughly 10x the amount of population of Canada. 29 x 10 = 290. Does this mean Canada is just as violent or more so than the US, since they actually have more deaths due to school shootings per capita?

    February 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  25. JM

    So unbelievably sad. God help us all.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  26. George

    Guns have been around for a couple hundred years and this phenom has really only become prevalent in the last decade or so. So what has changed? The internet for one. The ease with which one can slander, tease or bully another person is magnified to such an extent that, even with anonymity, you can cut a kid to shreds. Perhaps our children have thinner skin as well. They were raised by Mr. Rogers and Barney where no matter what – you were the most special person in the world – so it goes to reason that when reality dictates that not everyone likes you (justified or not) that your reaction might be more extreme than a person raised in another era. Just my 2 cents.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Reply
    • PS

      Ow, you forgot one small thing – guns too have changed! It is a lot harder to use a musket to kill students at random! BTW, muskets were the ones our forefathers protected under our rights. Not the semiautomatic ones!

      February 28, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
      • Dave23

        PS, it was once legal for people to own FULLY automatic weapons, until the 1930's, let alone semi-auto ones and there was never a problem with school shootings until the last 15 years. So we went 80 years with semi-auto guns and no problems to more regulation and more school shooting in the last 15 years. Again PS you need to open your eyes to the greater problems in society than guns.

        February 28, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  27. John

    I'm surprised a three death shooting makes news and a fuss in US.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  28. viper5422007

    And to comment on one statement I viewed.......I disagree ......most school shooting are seemingly based on someone being bullied! We have at one point been there.....no one wants to admit it...fine....I was a chubby little kid in grade school.....fine...such is life....but come freshman year in HS......I was the 6'3" buff so called american star....but i never forgot my roots and my friends from back in the day...I thank my parents upbringing and ....even thoughout Mlitary whicH I did 2 wars they are still my friends and i talk to them all the time....friends from grade school mind you.....I dont know...must be so called a "sign of the times." I dont know....everyone can blame parents, teachers etc etc......I dont know purhaps Im old lol

    February 28, 2012 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  29. wharf0rat

    Why does America lead the world in school shootings? Probably the same reason the US government leads the world in military spending, invading and occupying other countries, and killing innocent people.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
    • George

      That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. So with your logic, kids with guns are attempting to mimic the US military. Listen, post something at least marginally thought out next time. Raise the bar a bit.

      February 28, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply
      • wharf0rat

        Actually it makes quite a bit of sense, my friend. Kids killing people in school, abortions, the death penalty, and the US military killing civilians abroad are all manifestations of the American culture of death.

        February 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  30. Questioneer

    In my youth bulliing was present too (I am over 70). BUT: The weapons have changed dramatically and the cell phones and internet abilities have a good share on that. Society may not be able to follow this up and judge the dangers.

    February 28, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
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