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 (2,260 Responses)
  1. TM

    School use to teach the Word of God and love and respect for others. When the state got involved they removed the moral fabric, discipline, prayer, and the 10 Commandments and replaced it with acceptance of sin. Now that God has been removed from the school system what do you expect: Chaos. The problem is not with guns, it is with kids left to themselves and live according to what they feel is right. Post modernism and the lack of Truth(Christ) is our greatest failure to our legacy. Mr. President, if you want to lead our nation, lead it to repentance.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:46 am | Reply
    • Milky Pirate

      When did public schools ever teach this? Just so you know the answer is never.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • Laura

      Christ or not Christ, but I agreed with you. Any religion would teach kids morals and values, and give them a “compass” for life. We removed religions from schools and most of the time from our lives, and gave nothing in return for souls and left our kids and many adults confused and disoriented what is good, what is bad, what are morals, what are sins. Being raised in a communist country myself where religion was prohibited, I still come to that conclusion and found my own way to the religion, and I truly believe when a child young, teach him or her right things, they still will do not always what you approve, but at least the base would be good and that will leave hope.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:21 am | Reply
  2. john C

    It is gun – the scecond amendment allows not only help to secure US homes – but allows (illegally) to put guns in hands of ill and childrens....

    February 28, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply
  3. David Nettles

    It takes moms and dads to raise kid. It takes prayer in schools. Without a solid background from parents meaning a mom and a dad children fill the void from whatever. You were warned back in the 60s about the result of the liberal methods of doing things. This is the result so quit winning about it and fix it. And yes you all know how!!!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply
    • JJ

      Academics belong in the classroom while prayer belongs in churches and homes.

      Just a thought...

      February 28, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
    • jlg

      Fairly Tales do not belong in Public schools!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  4. R.Schultz

    This list really fails to recognize the biggest reason, which is the breakdown of the family unit we've had over the past 30-40 years. A majority of violence starts in broken homes. The availability of guns, bullying, mental health...those things have all been the same over the past 50 years, heck my dad told me stories of when they used to bring guns to school in a rural school when he was a kid, so they could go hunting after class was done. Teachers, parents and other students were fine with it, yet we didn't have shootings back then at all.

    But the number of kids growing up in broken or single family homes has risen dramatically over the past 30 years, and children do need that guidance from both parents. We've devalued the family structure more, and children are paying the consequences of it. Because all of the school programs, welfare money and social counselors cannot be a 2nd parent to them.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  5. Dave

    A social worker making just above minimum wage and handling the workload of the seven other social workers laid off 5 years ago gets fined and probation for the death of a child that hangs him self in the parents care. WHAT EVER!! A great singer DESTROYS her life spends several million dollars on drugs dies a pathetic failure and we LOWER THE FLAGS and morn her like a saint. This kid needed help AND YOU PEOPLE BLAIME THE GUN

    February 28, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  6. JJ

    Why all the violence?

    Er, could it be the inevitable blowback from the pervasive culture of in-your-face confrontation, disrespect, argument, stress, and hyper competetive mentality? Not to mention the effect of escalating threats and counter threats involving just about everything?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  7. hasc

    If it wasn't a gun, it would be a shovel, a pick, or an axe.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • Milky Pirate

      What people here don't seem to realize is that kids stab and club each other so much that it is not even newsworthy anymore.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
    • JJ

      Right. Because we all know a middle school kid with a shovel can drop as many classmates and teachers just as fast as a middle school kid with a 15 round Glock.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
  8. David H

    Comments are polar, as I expected. If guns were outlawed, they wouldn't have been shot – right? Yes, but they would have been stabbed, poisoned, bombed, run over, or something else instead. You can argue having a gun handy makes it easier for kids to act out on their impulses. You'd be right. Responsible gun ownership includes protecting people from themselves and immature minds that have no self control. It's horrific this happened, but to start banging the drums for gun control is reactionary and won't solve a thing. From ggyC (in this post) Guns are the tool, we need to find the motive.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
    • concerned

      Remember the Va. Tech shootings a few years back? Do you really believe 30 people would have been killed if the same guy had gone in with a steak knife or a baseball bat?

      February 28, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  9. us1776

    Because we are a narcissistic culture.

    .

    February 28, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  10. ThePROFESS10NAL

    Maybe if we weren't enslaved by the 1% "Job Creators" for a low wages, forcing us to work more and more as cost of living goes up and up. Families are more like acquaintances today, see each other in passing.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  11. James

    Plain and simple......guns are too readily available and the violence depicted in movies and on television shows surely does not help. The NRA's position that people kill people , and that guns do not kill people is absolute B.S. People kill because guns are easily available.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  12. megin

    The schools are too big loosing connection between students, teachers and parents.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
    • Scmv

      Then why cut school budgets, causing lower staff/student ratios, consolidation of small schools into big ones, etc.? It all comes home to roost.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:56 am | Reply
      • megin

        Its called School Choice. More support for Charter Schools. Put education back in the hands of the parents and students. The schools need to get back to operating as a community and not a money making farm. There is something wrong with our schools. Teachers getting arrested everyday for abuses.

        February 28, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  13. joelucky

    The U.S. is probably #1 in school shootings because we make heroes out of people who kill others on foreign soil, and because we make anyone who opposes personal gun ownership feel un-American. Wake up, people! Guns are dangerous, and lets face it- guns cause more problems than they solve.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
  14. Eagle Eye

    I can tell everyone where it comes from. It comes from Hollywood they set the tone for the culture in America, which are run by some of the biggest liberals in the country. These kids today see all the movies that are made and they act out what they see. They make movies about "bullies" in school, they also make movies about "bullies" in the work place. But it's most "Prevalent" with children from the ages of 10 to 18. Hollywood dwells on this age culture. There was a story yesterday that two girls got into a fight and several hours one of the girls died. When children can't take it anymore they take action into their own hands and use deadly force. The parents are to busy to listen to their children because of all the pressures of work and what is going around them. It's the culture of today's society. The reporter who wrote this article also mentiond Russia and Israel as two of largest countries that have school shooting so the United States is not No.1. I don't want to hear that children have access to "guns" children can get "guns" as easy as anyone. Or they find their parent;s "guns". I can see that the liberal press has "not" reported how the shooter in Ohio got the "gun" he used to shoot all of his classmates. This is the new culture that is in the United States and there are no solutions to combat this as long as Hollywood keeps making movies about violence in today's soceity it will never end.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • JJ

      Right. "Liberal" mega-corporations like Disney, Tiime-Warner, etc.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • rarny

      Most school shooting happen in the US. The only school shootings that happened in both Israel and Russia (one in Russia, two in Israel) were terrorist acts done for nationalist reasons.

      July 21, 2012 at 4:11 am | Reply
  15. Scmv

    Because we have the most guns and the easiest access to them; also because we have poor access to mental health care ,making early intervention difficult.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
  16. alexandriaS

    I don't believe guns are to blame in any situation. The guns aren't the ones shooting and killing bystanders. All the reasons people are choosing to justify teenagers grabbing guns and killing students,teachers.etc isn't exactly correct. Yes i agree they do contribute to the reasons teenagers feel the need to hurt another person,but i dont believe adults should be searching for the reasons. it should be the kids who take action against the bullying and torment that goes on in schools all over America. you can debate this till your blue in the face and put laws and warning signs in schools everywhere,but it comes down to the fact that kids are generally mean to each other,and it has nothing to do with entertainment. Their are always going to be bullies for whatever reason,bad home life,illness,or maybe their just mean,but the only way bullying is going to stop is if you get the kids involved and educated them on the effects of their actions to other students,no school really understands the loss of their students due to another students actions till it happens,if you want to prevent them get the students involved.
    -high school student.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
  17. Mike

    As a non American (Canadian) and looking from the outside, all civilized western countries have all the same potential contributors as the USA other than the access to and love affair with guns. So in my opinion, that is the difference.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:55 am | Reply
  18. Milky Pirate

    America has the most school shootings for two reasons 1) we have terrible parents in the country and 2) when dangerous students are identified they get special treatment rather than expelled.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:56 am | Reply
    • Matt T

      Your ability to ignore the kids that have been expelled and then returned to shoot up the place is amazing.

      February 28, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  19. Chedar

    Instead of those two poor kids who died in this incident, it should have been those kids whose parents supported the NRA's that die.

    The NRA are the massacre of kids in this nation and all the violence that is happening in this country.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
    • Milky Pirate

      People like you that can't put a complete, coherent thought together; yet, have children are the problem.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
      • Chedar

        No guns none of this hideous crime would have happen.

        February 28, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Illeagle-j1

      The NRA, main message is to teach it membership to know the weapon, and the damage it can cause. The NRA is not responsible for the fact that violence has become the way to respond to problems. Our permissive society is the problem.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
      • joelucky

        The NRA has nothing but bloody hands on a day like today. Sorry, but it is the truth.

        February 28, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  20. Illeagle-j1

    This violence against students, is not a new phenomenon, the only difference is that today, we have the "NEWS CREW" to report it ad nausem. If we really want to control the problem, we must attack it at the source. This idea that because the perpetrator is under a certain arbitrary age, therefore we must be willing to accept the damage they cause, needs to end. First we have to make the parents responsible for the action of their children, a parent winds up in JAIL, for the actions of their children will have a delitory affect on that child in future. If enough parents wind up with financial and jail judgements against them. We need to stop leaving the moral upbringing to the "SCHOOLS", many years ago, I wanted to be a teacher, due to the support of several teachers in my life. But by the time I was in college I found out that the role of teachers had changed. When I was growing up, if I miss behaved in school, and recieved punishment at school, by the time I arriaved home I could expect my parents to be ready to add to that punishment. Today, when a child miss behaves the parents blame the school and the teacher for their childs problem. We must change this so that our society can grow and leave this rat city mentality behind.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
    • Milky Pirate

      Excellent point!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
  21. Hi

    Who is mentally sick? Is it just the kid who decides to pick up the gun? I think the bullies are also mentally sick. If you think about it, a bully acts stupid everyday due his/her mental sickness. So far, bullies seem to be lucky, because everytime such an incident occurs the sickness is attributed only to the kid who picks up the gun.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
  22. Anne

    Okay. So the author outlines some of the factors, but is missing the three big ones. 1. Poor, permissive parenting. Lack of discipline leads to lack of self-discipline. Our kids are coddled and end up just as self-absorbed as their parents. 2. Lack of discipline in the schools. Teachers cannot overcome poor parenting, but they do reinforce the student's lack of discipline and lack of self-responsibility. Teachers and admins coddle the students because they are intimidated by the parents and their own fears. Yes, I have taught high school and I was appalled at what I saw. Good students being turned into self-absorbed monsters. 3. Hollywood morality and the glamor that Hollywood creates.

    Now clearly these three "big" factors don't create bullies or killers. But they create a culture in which bullying is tolerated ( in spite of pretend anti-bullying programs ) and they create a culture where students lack discipline, lack self-discipline, and evade responsibility for their own actions. Perhaps I should add a fourth "big one" which is a horrible legal system that has no concern whatsoever with truth or justice. Our legal system is all about plea bargains and ego-centric prosecutions, publicity, and who has the most money to spend. We throw away evidence ( truth ) and then coddle the convicted. This kid, a killer, is messed up. But the legal system will only make it worse.

    We never seem to hold anyone accountable for anything. No wonder then that our kids grow up to be me-firsters just like their parents. And woe be to anyone who dares to suggest that their kids may not be perfect.

    End of rant ( maybe ) ( for now ).

    February 28, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
  23. PC

    The gun debate is such a difficult problem, it's too late to "take them away" that Pandoras box has been open too long now...but it's obvious that it'd be a lot harder to stab 5 people in such a short amount of time. It's the guns, but what to do about it is a problem we don't have answers for...

    February 28, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply
  24. Agnim

    "Why does America lead the world in school shootings?"

    Well duh!
    Do we really have to ask?

    USA is the most conflict-loving and violence-loving nation on the planet!

    Witness the US addiction to:

    1. Weapons of wars & murder

    2. Seeing every instance of conflict anywhere in the world as a party that Americans should crash.
    Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, etc ring a bell?

    3. Promoting warmongering to young children

    4. And the list of Americans addiction to violence goes on and on and on ....!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • DarnRight

      You got that right.

      February 29, 2012 at 12:08 am | Reply
  25. ReganRepub

    The article makes no sense. What is the point? Is he comparing? Offering a solution? By stating who should be armed and preventing "boys" only from bringing a loaded gun to school you are advocating and anti-gun solution. Remember the motto "Guns don't kill people, people kill people, and if everyone person who wanted a gun in the school had access to a gun, this probably could have been avoided". Yeah right.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply
    • The REAL Truth...

      It's a pro-gun motto and completely flawed. It can be spun any way you like, but guns DO kill people. Quickly and efficiently.
      How we resolve conflict without guns? Think about it.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
  26. Tom

    The author "beat around the bush" with analysis of various possibilities- However the prime difference between our schools and those elsewhere is that we have removed the authority from the teachers and administrators to use their intuition and experience and then tke action. Parents, (and their lawyers), schools boards (catering to parents) and politicians have made it so taking early action is only questioned and not generally supported. Support the front line education professionals- even when there are some minor mistakes- and we all will get courageous detection and correction before there is a tragedy.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:02 am | Reply
    • FairisFair

      I totally agree with you, teachers need the training and the authority to deal with these issues, I sincerely believe teachers want to prevent bullying if given the power you will see a drop in rates of bullying

      February 28, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
    • beth simeniuk

      I absolutely agree with Tom. Seems that students in some schools no longer have to answer for bad behavior, or they are simply overlooked due to overcrowding. I do have one question, though. When I attended high school in the late seventies in a town in rural Montana, many of the students had gun racks in their pickups in the school parking lot. A fair number of the boys wore hunting knives on their belts. We never had even fistfights in the school itself and absolutely NEVER anything, anywhere with weapons. So no, I don't believe the guns alone are the source of the problem. Something else has been added to the formula, and I believe that it may be that many kids are no longer held morally responsible for even the least actions from the time they are small.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
      • friendergy

        While that may be true of Glasgow in the 70's, how many students were taking SSRI's? ZERO! Well over 90% of all mass shootings are by people taking SSRI's.

        Seritonin is the "don't panic yet" brain chemical and since fluoride is the base chemical in a SSRI, when they stop taking it they go crazy. Glasgow had fluoride in the water. Stalin was first to use fluoride in the water supplies of prison camps. Hitler was second.

        April 14, 2014 at 5:55 am |
  27. Dave

    Why is the U.S. number one in school shootings?

    Answer: because someone has to be

    February 28, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
  28. FairisFair

    I think that we need better trained teachers who are capable of handling one of the greatest crimes known to man aka bullying, it is so easy to prevent and it does nothing to improve anyones mental state! No one knows better than a High School or Middle School student how badly teachers handle Bullying cases and scenarios!

    February 28, 2012 at 10:04 am | Reply
    • Retired_Teacher

      agree .. but also, remove barriers & give teachers ability to handle bullying. Currently, teachers are crucified if they make a fuss over a kid's bullying. Parents threaten suit for slander, defamation, want proof, etc. I brought the issue to the central admin of my system and got laughed at, told to shut up.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:13 am | Reply
      • friendergy

        Get into the game retired_Teacher, you should have beat up the admin. 🙂

        April 14, 2014 at 6:56 am |
    • Frank

      We hear how far America is behind in education. Our teachers are barely able to teach Johnny to read or write, now they have to be bouncers as well?

      February 28, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  29. strangways

    hey – maybe easy access to guns is a reason? ANY effort to curb gun ownership is met by insane resistance by the Gun lobby/NRA who continue to shrug off incidents like this. "Oops, not our problem..." At least re-institute the assault weapons ban – unless you believe that's just for "hunting". yeah, right.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:08 am | Reply
  30. Leila

    The problem does not lie with guns. A couple of comments on this blog from school professionals hit on the issue accurately. The problem is that no one is listening to kids. It is true that in public schools we are teaching CONTENT, encouraging rote memorization, and teaching to a standardized test so that the public will feel assured that teachers are doing their jobs. However, teachers are faced with very troubled kids. We see it DAILY. They are depressed, they are hungry, they are apathetic and care about nothing, they are angry and frustrated. How do we cope with it in a classroom of 30-35 students? Usually, we DON'T. If a student tunes himself out, teachers will try to motivate him/her to learn. But perhaps the underlying reasons for unwillingness to be engaged in school is something beyond our capacities to deal with.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply
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