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. Gabriel

    Society has changed. Everyday children and adults are inundated with violence..violent movies, violent TV programs, violent video games, violent music. What do you expect? This will continue because the people who produce this violence make millions. They call it freedom of expression and don't give two hoots about who dies. And the stupid judges go along with this propaganda.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  2. jamest

    easy

    kids these days are brought up by older gang banging thugs and wanna have that life. They see how their fathers, older brothers and older friends act out and like it for some reason (its a power trip to have a gun in your hand knowing you can take out what you want when you want and have all your thugs holding in your little secrets on how many peeps they have killed a secret).

    I had more broken fingers and wrists because my dad was a type of a man that thought all coud be settled thru fists. It cant and i bet you all the cash in the world i mised out on some of the best friends i could have ever had because they were not white skinned and my dad made me fight them at all costs. I was hunting at 6 and had a 20 gauge shot gun crambed in my hands at 8 when my dad traveled fro dupont and was told to keep the girls safe lol i was 4 yrs older other was 8 yrs older and oldest was 14 yrs older than me. It has nothing to do with age it has to do with responsability and education. My spelling is bad SORRY.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  3. NU Fan

    Where was dad when the child was young? Should've been home giving the child life lessons instead of out assaulting people. Guns don't kill people, people kill people with guns. Whether it was a gun or a machette doesn't matter, fact is the kid needed attention and obviously wasn't getting it at home or at school.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Reply
    • Althalos

      Once again why were guns made? That's correct johnny they were made to kill not to say hay what's up. Guns kill people period

      February 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  4. world citizen

    Guns are to individuals as nuke to nations. If we allow every body to have the right to bear arms then we should have no problem with Iranian's nuke.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
    • Althalos

      Just used the same example yesterday and I completely agree. Not with Iran having nukes mind you but with how if people think its okay for everyone to have guns then those same people shouldn't have a problem with Iran having a nuke.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  5. g

    time to disarm the civilian populace they have proven they can't handle possessing deadly weapons

    February 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
    • Althalos

      I agree 100%

      February 28, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • HorseCentz

      According to the FBI crime statistics since gun laws were relaxed in the early 1990's allowing easier access and concealed carry, violent crime is way down and firearm crime is way down also.

      By your logic however, we should take away rights to own cars and rights to smoke cigarettes, and rights to swim.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Criminals prefer defenseless victims. Unlike you, I choose not to be defenseless.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      Yes, let's take away the rights of everyone because 1 person out of millions goes off the deep end. Great idea.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  6. Mike

    God, there are a lot of idiots on here. People, with a 330 million population there are probably going to be more deaths from school shootings than other countries. We've had 250 deaths (roughly) due to school shootings in the US. Canada has had 27 (roughly) deaths. 27 x 10(US population is ten times that of Canada) and you have 270 deaths.

    Simple math would tell you that Canada is just as violent as the USA when it comes to school shootings, and you would probably find the same stats in other countries as well. This isn't just a problem here, although mindless idiots just see the overall number, don't think for themselves, and come to the conclusion that the USA is way more violent than other places.

    It's not, we just have more people. Canada is proof of that. Everyone thinks it's so much safe, yet per capita they have more gun violence than we do. There's more to things than just an overall number people.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
    • Dave

      Mike, your math is wrong. It's absolutely idiotic infact. We don't have this problem here....at all. There has been exactly one incident in this entire country. Stop looking at stats. This is a moral problem. You're a part of it by the looks of it. Go back and re-bury your head in the sand....and stats.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  7. t-bone west

    Easy access to guns is no doubt part of the problem. But to completely negate that threat all guns would have to be banned, confiscated and destroyed. There would still be guns in the hands of those who would avoid confiscation- criminals for the most part. But your typical disturbed child would not have access to guns, so that might be a solution. But at what price to our 2nd Amendment rights? Of course the logic of gun confiscation is identical to the logic of illegal drug confiscation. We can't keep all drugs out but making them illegal reduces the amount that would otherwise be in society. But we see how ineffective our drug policies are. As a short term solution it might be advisable to strictly enforce metal detectors, security guards, etc.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  8. alovingfather

    put God and prayer back in schools and see what happens.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
    • Althalos

      Amen. I am tired of all these atheists that continue to insult us daily while we do not insult them in their choice to be atheist. All I'm saying is if I don't insult your religion or your beliefs don't insult mine.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • 2-SIDES-OF-THE-COIN

      We have too many God-haters in this country and too many leaders who rather please them then God. For this reason God has removed His shield of protection and turned this country over to the ungodly. Pray not "God bless America", He has done it, and look what it became, the same as rebellios Israel of old. .... BUT Pray, God have mercy and bring America to her knees!

      February 28, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
    • TOS4Olam

      That is the wisest statement on this whole blog.

      February 29, 2012 at 1:12 am | Reply
  9. doctordrewl

    What if every student had a gun and knew how to use it? Manners might make a comeback...

    February 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  10. suzan

    Was this teen receiving counseling? Who gave him support? Did his grades change for the worse recently? Diid he ever tell his father to leave him alone ? So many questions. One fact we have is that his father was an abuser from the time this kid was a tot. His father abused his mother and was warned to stay away from his wife and son. The sins of the father. Was he so angry with his father that he shot others to get some of the anger out? There are so many issues.

    How could those innocent kids been saved from this mass murder?
    Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time? Seems so. The kids that were murdered were beautiful souls. Why?
    Why did they have to die? I can't stop crying after viewing the interview with one of the victim's family.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  11. Mike #2

    Kids are babied and can't handle problems because they are brought up living a fairy tale life where everything is provided to them and are sheltered from any wrong doing. God forbid you call someone an idiot in class, you get written up for bullying and get a phone call home on the "incident". Kids are so soft. Our society needs a readjustment on parenting to raise tougher kids who understand discipline, respect, and know how to deal with problems on their own instead of parents/officials conveniently finding ways to solve all their problems for them. Back in the day if you had a problem, you solved in on the playground with a swift punch in the face and you got a detention. Now there's a police report and lawyers with paperwork, payments for medical bills and plastic surgery... even though the kid deserved every ounce of what he had coming. Bullies laugh in the face of authority, the only way they stop is when their "weak prey" isn't so weak anymore. By taking away every opportunity to defend yourself without getting into legal trouble, many times kids bottle it in so long they finally burst and start firing because they don't see any other way out of their own personal hell. I'm generalizing on middle class America... there are many areas with legitimate problems, I'm not commenting on that.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  12. No one

    "But school shootings are gun crimes"
    okay

    February 28, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Reply
    • simple

      no its drug crime first before gun crime

      February 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  13. WillyWalnuts

    Vermont has no gun control laws and the lowest crime rate in the lower 48 states.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  14. It's elementary Mr. Watson

    "School shootings are far more frequent in America than in other countries..." ...because America has far more schools than other countries.

    Author Ochberg touched on every subject but the one staring him smack in the face, neatly missing the forest for the trees. Then again, if he had seen and reported on the simplicity of the real reason, there would be no story and no big fat consultant's fee.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  15. mlr

    Dear God – Why is there so much violence in schools these days.? Signed fearful student

    Dear Fearful Student – I am not allowed in schools these days. Love God

    February 28, 2012 at 7:22 pm | Reply
  16. simple

    Simple answer. As about the prescription drugs they take before. Common factor is either ADD drug or anti depression medication. where is FDA when that happens...

    February 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  17. OhBoy

    ONE POTENTIAL SOLUTION WILL BE TO PUT METAL DETECTORS AT SCHOOLS OR HAVE STUDENTS WEAR SCHOOL UNIFORMS SIMILAR TO STUDENTS IN OTHER COUNTRIES. WE NEED TO SEE BEYONG OUR EYES CAN REACH AND LEARN FROM OTHER COUNTRIES HOW THEY CONTROL THIS KIND OF CRIMES. IT IS VERY SIMPLE BAN GUNS IN AMERICA. THE SOLUTION IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR EYES WHY WE KEEP THE MERCHANTS OR GUN TO KEEP MAKING PROFITS BY SALING GUNS AT THE COSTS OF HUMAN LIFE!

    February 28, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Reply
    • Claude Slagenhop

      Seriously? So you think if this kid didn't have access to a gun, he wouldn't take a hatchet or a hunting knife to his fellow classmates? How about a propane tank bomb or a suicide vest filled with ball bearings? I would call you a name but it would probably invalidate my post, but it rhymes with noron.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  18. Shannon

    As freshman in college I've made many friends over the years who were from Europe who were studying in America for a year. Their observations on youth in America were eye opening. Most of them found American youth and Americans in general to be surprisingly miserable and angsty. They were often surprised at not only the level of bullying but how little school officials seemed to do about it. School in America, they often said, is different in that school tends to be more about social pressures; it always comes as a surprise to European exchange students that it is the kids who perform the best academically in school who get picked on the most.
    I believe a major issue at hand is that the environment for American youths tends to be much more hostile for many kids. I was in the public schools recently enough ago to know from experience. I remember being harrassed by students for being very studious and not as athletically talented, and the teacher thought it was great. Afterwards one of one the kids in the class from Denmark said people never acted like that in her country. I still remember her saying that for a country known as a light on hilltop, Americans never seem all that happy or nice to each other. The negative, combative, and fake atmosphere of growing up and going to school luckily never made me snap, but not everyone can ignore it all, and that's where the violence comes from.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • MXCMII

      @Shannon. Well said. One of the best comments here.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  19. MXCMII

    What lame excuses this article presents. Face reality we have a problem. We do not know how to raise kids, we are too selfish. If this were happening in another country, we were the first one criticizing and trying to provide advise. We all look very preppy and happy on the outside, but the cancer is running deep. Time to look at the mirror and re-evaluate, the longer we delay it, the more painful it will be.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • Shannon

      Exactly. Among other things, America is quickly becoming the leader in raising bratty, self-centered children.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  20. simple

    Hey FDA instead of going after farmers who sell raw milk, why dont you go after drug companies that say your child needs drugs so he can go kill people....

    February 28, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Reply
  21. HorseCentz

    Its rather simple. Don't let children get their hands on your guns. Be responsible.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  22. michaelwg

    I'm seeing the same old tired arguments on here.
    We are the most religious of western nations
    We spend billions each year on our drug war
    And we want more? That's the definition of insanity. These don't prevent crime, they cause more.
    T.V, media, videogames is such a foolish argument with no evidence back it up.
    The most current shootings were using a guns that were obtained legally. So there goes the old "gun control isn't the answer because people will just get them illegally argument" Frankly, you have a prevalent weapon that is easy to use and keep concealed, you have big schools with poor student-teacher ratios and kids are falling through the cracks, i.e not being engaged in anything meaningful way, or it goes unnoticed when they are bullied. The U.S adults set a poor example as well with over 100,000 people were killed on all sides in Iraq alone. We are responsible for killing innocent people all the time and putting it up on the news, and you want to blame videogames?!?!
    Military-industrial complex, the U.S is the most warlike nation on the face of the eath, no one else comes close. So why is violence surprising when it happens at here at home?
    OR...the kid just had a chemical imbalance or not enough B-vitamins.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  23. snookers

    I do not think that the USA has more violence in schools than other 1st world countries. Just that the USA has the highest number of guns per capita. Other countries have violence in the form of knives which generally does not result in multiple deaths and often does not even make it to the news. I do want to point out that the USA does not have universal healthcare which includes mental health care like in many other 1st world countries. Mental problems in other countries are quite often flagged by the GP doctor during annual visits. Something that is not available to many folks in the USA unless they have the bucks/insurance.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  24. Vence

    Being American is synonym of violence!

    February 28, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  25. HorseCentz

    Lets arm all the children. Make it mandatory for every child to carry a fully loaded, hair-triggered, large caliber, automatic weapon in each hand. After a few weeks we won't need to have these discussions any more.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  26. simple

    schools are like prisons. what you expect.

    where are the gun control nuts???

    February 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  27. Isolation in the suburbs

    I think this stuff doesn't occur in the inner cities because there is a stronger sense of community in cities just because people are physically closer together and a lot of people walk where they need to go.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Reply
    • .

      What planet are you living on? Did you know the number one cause of death for black men under the age of 21 is murder?

      February 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  28. Ryan Callahan

    It's because of the legal status of handguns and the amount that are flooded into the market. Hunting rifles etc are not the problem, it is handguns. They are for nothing but man killing. Fireworks are illegal here in Ohio, but any non felon schmuck who bothers to apply can walk around in a Walmart with a handgun. It is absolutely idiotic...let me walk around with a sword and see how long it takes before cops roar in.

    Since England enacted gun control after the 1996 school massacre, there have been no school killings, in that time there have been like a hundred here in the States.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Reply
    • carpeminutam

      but now the UK has plenty of knife attacks. In 2008 the stats were like more than 350 people are the victim of knife assaults every day. So there goes the argument of "gun control" solving the issue.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:49 pm | Reply
  29. .

    Funny, black on black violence is accepted as an everyday occurrence. And while it's a damned shame, let one white kid go nutso and off a few of his classmates and it's a national problem.

    But if CNN focused on black violence, they would have to expose the failure of liberalism.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  30. Kavita

    Bottom line..a gun is a weapon, such weapons were made with the sole purpose of killing. If kids have No access to guns altogether, there will be no shootings. There is a hole in the system! It is important to expose kids to positive things from a young age , instead of exposing them to negativity. So much can be said about this serious issue..something clearly needs to change.

    February 28, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      Guns are also for protection. The USA, because of it sheer size, has plenty of remote areas. Folks should be able to protect themselves from Manson like creatures.

      February 28, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Reply
      • Kavita

        haha...yes . If a manson like creature stood in front of me, I would runnnnnn. Personally, I dislike guns and the whole idea behind them. If we live and let live, destruction will not occur.

        February 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
      • dwnwthvwls

        If you need a gun to protect yourself, you need to stop putting yourself in situations that warrant that kind of protection. And your reference is to an isolated incident that happened 50 years ago. People should quit living their lives in constant fear.

        February 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
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