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. tbone

    People went out of their way to ensure that God was removed completely from the schools and Satan didnt hesitate to move in.
    You reap what you sow.
    Now go home and dont disciple your child when they need it, thats child abuse.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  2. Claude Slagenhop

    Seriously? How about looking at a school system that universally fails the American Public, that turns out students that barely read/write. A school system run by union hacks who care nothing for the kids, and all about their bottom line, lifetime pensions and over bloated salaries. How about encouraging every student to go to college, thereby dumbing down the college population, running up 100+ thousand student loans to get a job that pays $12/hr. Blame the teacher unions, the democrats and the leftist journalists.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  3. James

    The USA is the #1 murder capital of planet Earth. We have the most shootings of any nation, much less just school shootings. We average more than 30,000 gun deaths a year in this country. I can't even find the statistics on people who are seriously wounded and disabled from gun violence. It has to be a truly hideous number for society to hide those statistics.

    It's also telling that almost all school shootings are done by white kids. What's up with white people? Why are they so filled with the urge to commit mass murder? I think one solution would be to keep guns away from white folk.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply
  4. Andrew

    I've lived in five different countries. Those countries all had angry teenagers, it's the nature of the beast, but other than the US they don't have ready access to guns, so you get stabbings and fist fights. It's really hard to stab 5 people let alone stab them to death.
    And yes I've lived in Switzerland and yes until recently all able-bodied men had a semi-automatic in the home for defense of the nation, but the Swiss smartened up and realised it was really dumb idea, so that was phased out.
    As for a gun to prevent home invasion, what a lot of garbage, there's far better home defense methods than a handgun.
    Take away the guns, you'll get more stabbings, baseball beatings and what not, but there will be a lots less dead kids.
    ps. the US is the most religious place I've ever lived. I don't seem that religion makes teens less angry.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Reply
    • James

      True words. The USA is a sick place packed with guns, religion, hatred, and lots of ignorance.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Reply
  5. Jeff

    We are #1 in this due to society. We have video games glorifying shooting people, we have music that is pro gang, we have parents that don't know how to raise a child properly. People shoot people, not guns so drop the NRA bashing. Why was this kid living with the grand parents and not the parents whom are responsible for him? A lot of people failed the shooter. Something led up to this. I wish he got help before hand. Now he will pay the cost of what he did. God bless those that died or were wounded and god bless their families. When I was a kid we went to the park, we played all sorts of outdoor games. we rode bicycles, we swam for hours.There was no PlayStation or MTV. We interacted with people all the time and helped each other with issues.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  6. nameuser247

    Burn a Koran and Muslims yell DEATH TO AMERICA, critique a video on youtube negatively and Americans threaten to kill you. Same kind of people.
    Some girl calls her parents vulgar names on facebook, her Dad shoots her laptop dead. This garners 20 mio + views on youtube. But thats the culture in a nutshell: Americans are vulgar and ugly, violence is their means to "fix" everything they dont like

    February 28, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply
  7. Scott

    Seriously, do people really believe that making guns harder to own would solve anything? Even if by some miracle you could find a way to get all the guns, which is impossible, there are far uglier methods of creating mass injuries. Perhaps we could go back to the dark ages when poison was all the rage...How many poisions do you have around the house?
    Car kill more teens in a week than guns do in a year, why are cars even allowed on the road?
    I'm not advocating guns either way, but if you want to address the issue, start with the issues, not the symptoms/results.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      Yes. And the problem is that a certain set of the population, in any country, any society, have unresolved issues which potentially lead to violence. I'm fairly sure that's been the case since we fell out the trees. So you can do two things, resolve the issues or take away the mechanisms that allow the violence to be expressed as murder. We shoud do both. The first is really, really hard as it's a problem of genetics, environment and society, the second is also hard but it's about guns and bullets, which is conceivably easy to fix.

      February 28, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Reply
      • Scott

        Well, with that thinking you might as well just lock everyone up in a cell, that way they won't get their hands on anything that might harm someone.

        February 28, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
  8. Honest Citizen

    News sources like CNN put these stories in the headlines day after day and these sick creatures see it as a way to get recognition and sympathy from the nation. AND THEY DO GET IT.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  9. Fr33th1nk3r

    Why we are #1 in school shootings?

    The urban gansta mentality is prevelant in all of our mass media, entertainment, and music. Seriously, when was the last time you heard of someone going to school and shooting a bunch fo random people after listening to Bob Dylan or the Doors?

    February 28, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
  10. WoundedAnimal

    Guns don't kill people. People with guns kill people. Kep guns and people apart and no one will get shot. Pretty frickin' simple

    February 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Reply
    • Abby

      The overwhelming majority of people with guns DO NOT kill people. In fact, legal gun owners and especially CCW permit holders tend to be the most law-abiding citizens, statistically far less likely to commit any crime even a misdemeanor.

      February 29, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply
  11. Jake

    It's because Nobody gives a sh!t about their kids.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  12. Jake

    its not movies... its not video games... these kids feel like they are alone and have nothing to lose.... society, parents are to blame... society keeps parents busy away from their kids

    February 28, 2012 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  13. Rick

    'cause we're number one in a lot of things, fool!!! what what!

    Just joking. It's a slippery slope. Once you start justifying homicide, everyone uses their own definition to do it. We learn to accept killing in the form of death penalty, preemptive wars, assassinating terrorists without taking them to trial, late term abortions, lynchings, etc, and finally killing becomes a way to solve all of our problems. People even say we should let a guy without money or insurance die (remember the Republican debate), others want to shoot illegals crossing the border, or poor homeless people. Life s not valued much anymore in this country.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      I agree. Religion and its teaching of hate and intolerance has taken over this country. What is really ironic is that many folks left the old world to get freedom of religion and a secular government. Now many folks in the new world want to be shove their religion down your throat and some politicians want to thump the bible in government matters.. And death penalty, which civilized country still has that anyway.?. Only the USA and a couple of third world countries, mostly Islamic. . No wonder kids have no respect for life anymore. Especially since decent healthcare is only available to the more affluent.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Reply
  14. jesse

    sure people who use the guns are the killers but this slogan is really only for dumb people (i.e. republicans). less guns equal less gun related death and jury. pure and simple. it's not even debatable. if we made all guns illegal, sure criminals would be able to get them somehow at times but in general but that's not that important. seriously, i'd love to see the stats to back up the dummy's big argument that without law abiding people's access to guns to protect themselves we'd all be at the criminals mercy. how many people (non police) actually succeed in defending themselves by using a gun when being threatened with a gun? it's probably laughably low because most victims in robberies wouldn't even have one on them even if they owned one when the crime actually occurs. nra people only like guns because they really aren't tough people and need their "safety blanket" or like to make believe like they are cowboys. just goes with the true notion, republicans are just plain old not smart and have brains of 10 year olds. i wish we could kick them all out of the country. it's too bad this kid didn't target an nra convention. they could have some real shooting first hand. ūüôā

    February 28, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
    • WillyWalnuts

      Read "More Guns – Less Crime" by John Lott. Seriously, most of his research has not been disputed.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  15. PAC

    I'm not proposing this as a solution, but in the past someone would have thought twice before doing such a murderous act because of what their neighbors would do to them. I imagine that this was a deterrent through most of human history. We don't have the lynch mobs of the past. There will always be people like this murderer who have no empathy. We need to find another way to deter.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  16. Wisdom4u2

    Dear God,
    Why didn't you save the children killed in America’s public schools?
    Sincerely,
    Concerned Student

    AND THE REPLY

    Dear Concerned Student,
    I am not allowed in America’s public schools.
    Sincerely,
    God

    February 28, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      Dear Concerned Student,
      you got free will and 10 commandments. The rest is up to you.
      love
      God

      February 28, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Reply
      • Jake

        i have to agree with you there... the school wont stop you from praying they just arent going to hold a prayer session for you

        February 28, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
      • Wisdom4u2

        What's a '10 commandments'? I've never seen it.
        Concerned Student,

        February 28, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
      • Andrew

        Maybe you should go to the church/mosque/synagogue/temple occasionally.

        February 28, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
      • Wisdom4u2

        why not school? Is there something 'wrong' with the 10 commandments?

        February 28, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
      • Andrew

        Why duplicate what the churches can do better?

        February 28, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
      • Wisdom4u2

        Why would the 'church' do better? Isn't 'school' a place for learning? Isn't 'it' a part of history?

        February 28, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • Seamus McDermott

      You want guns, you got guns.
      Get used to it.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  17. Drew

    The guns are not the issue. It's funny school shootings in Texas have hardly ever happened and there one of the most laxed states on the issue but yet you have california who is one of the strickest on the issue and they happen all the time it's the society in which we live in.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      Are you seriously contrasting which states have the best school murder rates?

      February 28, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
      • WillyWalnuts

        More like which state has the worst murder rate, and why.

        February 28, 2012 at 9:05 pm |
  18. JimK

    This trend started with the ban of prayer in public school.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Reply
    • snookers

      What are you smoking? .

      February 28, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Reply
  19. amy

    I read and article which said the perpetraitor targeted a boy who was dating his former girlfriend. Why are they trying to ignore this fact. It was a quote by one of the boys sitting with the other victims. ???

    February 28, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Reply
  20. amy

    Anyone who does not keep their guns under lock and key when any youth could possible gain access to it, even a relative, should face charges if the said gun is used by a teen to gun down other teens.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  21. Crow

    School shootings while horrendous are NOT a problem by any sense of the word. The number of students wiped out by guns is statistically insignificant when compared to the number of total school children. It appears more widespread than it is because the media shoves these isolated incidents down our throats 24/7 making the incident appear more widespread and more important than they actually are.

    The real problem is that not enough people exercise their God given right to bear arms. An armed population is the best preventative against crime.

    February 28, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      I'm sorry which Commandment was that. I only abide by the first ten. I must have a different version of the Bible. Mine says "though shalt not kill", and I don't see any disclaimers.

      February 28, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
      • Andrew

        though=thou

        February 28, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
      • Jake

        how many do you really abide by?... its easy to follow thou shall not kill

        February 28, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
      • Jake

        the being jealous if my neighbors slaves... thats a toughy

        February 28, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
      • WillyWalnuts

        Tell that to the next killer you run into. Law abiding gun owners are not the problem. You have the right to NOT own a gun.

        February 28, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
      • Andrew

        Honestly, I not good with the working on the Sabbath and I'm bad with the swearing, but my neighbour's ass is safe, I haven't killed anyone so I'm saying 8 out of 10 and working on the other 2.

        February 28, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
      • Andrew

        May your God go with you.

        February 28, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
  22. Jake

    shove your god and devil sh!t up your a$$...quit passing the blame off on the devil.. that is for the weak... and quit hoping a deity will come and save your a$$ and try to solve your problems

    February 28, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  23. Marge

    The US has a gun culture and kids stuff like that is drummed in to kids almost from birth. And they have easy access as most parents homes are loaded with all kinds of guns. Something that is not usually done in European and Asia countries.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  24. Arturo

    As a kid, I was horribly bullied in 7/8 grade. I had access to my father's guns, and knew well how to operate them. I never even dreamed of using a gun...

    February 28, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  25. Notaposter

    Headline: We are Sensationalistic Bas**ds!
    We got loads of guns out and every school shooting is covered by the media, only about three happen per year. Is that enough to ban the ownership from millions of good people?
    How about cars? people die so much from them that they go unreported. Ban them too?

    Knee-jerk reactions by the ignorant and fear-mongered populace is the reason why countries go downhill. First give guns, then just keep on giving to the gov't till you can be arrested for terrorism for speaking out.

    Control is needed, situations like these happen when the owner of the weapon broke proper procedures on keeping his weapons safe.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Reply
  26. DAO

    Gun control, gun control, gun control!!! How was a teenager able to acquire a weapon used only for killing people? Yes, guns are tools and not the underlying problem, but the simple fact is that without guns, these kinds of massacres would not be possible. Research has consistently shown that if you have a gun in your house, it is more likely to be used against a member of the household than against an intruder. Only when we have sensible gun control laws in this country will these massacres come to an end.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Reply
  27. Dan

    We're number 1!

    February 28, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  28. George Carlin

    Because Americans think everyone has the right to own a gun. Therefore you've increased the chances that someone who should never ever posses a gun of having a firearm.
    I am neither pro nor anti firearms. People kill people, guns do not. That's not an endorsement for you republican crusaders; Our loose laws allow people to use guns with ease, many of which should never be within a mile of a firearm.

    February 28, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • john

      Everyone has the right to own a gun. No one has the right to shoot another. But then, some have defective brains.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Reply
  29. spammy

    at least our schools are still number one at something...

    February 28, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • toadears

      hahahaha good one. Yes because the US is 11th or 12th in education world wide now. 34th in healthcare!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Reply
  30. Mike

    Dr. Frank Ochberg,
    Excellent article. However, many of the comments are very disturbing. Do we no longer teach comprehension in school?

    February 28, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Reply
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