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. back-track

    The only thing that's really changed the last 50 years is that children get less parent time... and more TV and video time. And teaching right and wrong is a parent's job. Moms used to mange much of this acculturation.

    What goes for standard media now will desensitize the young developing mind... so toss out the TV, stick with old movies and reading, let your young child develop the old-fashioned way.

    March 2, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  2. redwine9991

    GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS,GUNS.
    IT IS ABOUT TIME THAT WE PROSECUTE ALL THE GUN MAKERS AND DEALERS!!!!

    March 2, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  3. Iceaxdave

    We lead in school shootings because numnutz like TJ (Beevis)Lane sit around the house all day jacking off to TV and eating Hostess HoHo's.

    March 2, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  4. hope'njusthope'n

    Let's see....who leads the world in recruiting high school age youth to shoot to kill helpless women and children, blow themselves up, beat their women into submission? Maybe Iran? hatred has NO respect for gender, culture, or religion

    March 2, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  5. Antzrus

    Guns are just a tool-and they do make the sick thinking easier to manifest. But sick, depressed kids (adults) are the motive. No, it's not severely depressed folks that barely eat, sleep, maintain their hygiene and move in a slow retarded fashion. But rather it's the normal (average-common-everyday) looking depressed folks whose thinking is just as disturbed and dark, but they have the energy to manifest such bizarre behavior. People always want to know the reason why. Often there is bullying, bad parenting, drugs, you name it that occurred in the environment that we blame. But that was just the straw that broke the depressive's back. The same bad experiences happen in most folks lives at one time or another and they don't go off the deep end. Parents, learn more about depressive illness. That's the why.

    March 2, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Reply
  6. TruthTeller

    American parents have left their children to raise themselves.Spare the rod and spoil the child. God never meant for parents to be best friends with their children. When parents fail to teach kids to respect even them in the home, who will kids deem worthy of respect outside of the home? Whoever it is it will be for the wrong reasons. Americans are not raising a society of respect, but a society of fear. Kids grow up deceived to think fear is respect, so they become teenagers and adults who use violence and intimidaton verbally and otherwise to get respect. God's Word cannot be broken. When you violate God's Word in the end you will also reap what you have sown. Let God alone be true and everyone else a liar. God will not bless what he does not endorse. Even if there is success in the beginning, it will end in destruction.

    March 3, 2012 at 1:11 am | Reply
  7. borisjimbo

    I sure hope the Heller majority is pleased with itself.

    March 3, 2012 at 1:44 am | Reply
  8. Dell Stator

    Heh guy, thrilled you were't bullied, or subject to other abuse by students at schools.
    It's about more than getting beat up.
    Bottom line is few schools want to be bothered policing the students.
    That and most "bullies" parents are .... bullies in their own ways, and schools have trouble dealing with that, and would rather ignore everything than face hard problems.
    As to guns, how about some real laws, real background checks, real req to keep them locked up, real penalities for not locking them up. I believe in gun ownership, but I believe in responsibility too.

    March 3, 2012 at 3:56 am | Reply
  9. 4commonsensenow

    Unless your going hunting,taking target practice at the range, using the weapon in your job, then I would say the other uses are based on emotion and theres your base problem.Anger management and problem solving skills.

    March 3, 2012 at 8:49 am | Reply
  10. Kerryanne

    ACCESS TO GUNS. PERIOD. When the hell are we going to learn?? Other countries do just fine without them. I am American living overseas in an EU country and it is positively disgraceful that we cannot get this through our thick skulls.

    March 3, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply
  11. mraimis

    here is good video about this http://adf.ly/5ugCz

    March 3, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply
  12. Bill

    No discipline is the reason. Your not allowed to kick the kids ars anymore. A cat & 9 tails is what is needed.

    March 3, 2012 at 9:34 am | Reply
  13. kenyon

    I just saw the movie COURAGEOUS. What we need in America is God fearing men, who will man up and love and lead their families!

    March 3, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
  14. Pat Kelly

    Put guns in the hands of monkeys and some monkeys will get shot. Even monkeys should be able to understand this.

    March 3, 2012 at 10:16 am | Reply
    • Kme

      I don't think that they were talking about cops.

      March 3, 2012 at 11:23 am | Reply
  15. Rael Golan

    The most obvious and the least discussed is:the legacy and consequences of America's love affair with war! expressed in the wholesale availability of weaponry. offspring of military men and general de-sensitivity to violence.

    March 3, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
  16. cathy

    nice point.

    March 3, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
  17. sawag

    USA is a great nation, but has a big big problem: too many weapons. In italy we have bad students too, but fortunately they have no weapons, so those accidents cannot happen here.

    Greeting from Italy

    March 3, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
    • Mommi

      In Italy they use knives instead which is more painful death

      March 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  18. Kme

    The US has just as bloody a history as any other country. The civil war of the 19th century to start with. That wasn't such a long time ago either.

    March 3, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
  19. Kme

    Guns work both ways, kids can kill at a school and criminals can use them even when they are illegal and the government employees can do some major mass slaughters easily when the general public is disarmed. The difference is that America still has some freedoms remaining.

    March 3, 2012 at 11:27 am | Reply
  20. AbeMartinLKingJFK

    Whatever. They have really convinced themselves that the American public doesn't know who's REALLY responsible for those school shootings, and other acts of false-flag attacks. The founders of this nation made sure to arm every US citizen in order that they could PROTECT themselves, not from the people, but from any outsiders who would infiltrate the government by stealth (as has been done), and then attempt to take away every freedom we HUMANS have (which is what they are currently trying to do). They've been trying to take Americans' ability to protect themselves from a foreign invader since Abraham Lincoln struggled to keep them OUT, and they've been seeking to take away the rights and freedoms of us HUMANS ever since. Always remember: just because it LOOKS human, doesn't mean that it is. You will know them by their works, and if it's working AGAINST humanity, it ain't human.

    March 3, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
  21. Einzart

    There is a disease and there are symptoms of the disease. Try to address the symptom as much as you want, it won't help curing the disease. The issue with most articles are they address one issue (symptom) and talk of "curing" it. The issues we see in our society comes primarily from the lack of a "religion". I know its the R word, but a lack of faith in something higher, is I believe the core "disease" of our society. I know most people will disagree with this but its a fact that from Religion comes a culture of acceptance and respect for all things living. I am very well aware of the problems surrounding religions of the world. I just wish there was a way not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    March 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  22. KC_CA

    How about this...
    Kids are told every day they are failures. They don't look good enough, aren't thin enough, strong enough, popular enough. They aren't as smart or capable as kids in (fill in any industrial nation here). If they come from poor families, they are oppressed and have no chance. If they come from rich families, they are oppressors and are horrible people. They are told constantly that they only chance they have at success is to be a sports star, an actor, or a singer and most know there is little hope of that extreme dream coming true. And what do people do when they have no hope, when everything around them says they are worthless? They often lash out.
    Want to stop school violence? Give kids hope. Stop pushing "be a pop star" and"be a fashion designer" on our kids. How about a reality show with kids from all walks of life competeing to build the best robot, best energy efficient home, etc? Show kids that kids just like them CAN compete on the world stage, CAN do well in real world things. Make the nerds and other kids with good grades the hereos of their schools instead of the fluff-for-brains jocks. Heck, show the world that some kids can be good at both.

    March 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  23. ouy

    The answer is quite simple .. Spock babies are to blame.

    March 3, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  24. Perkiest

    Americans love their guns, shooting things, animals, people, so let them shoot each other in peace, and mind your own business.

    March 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  25. V

    The question that is asked, "How would the kid have killed people as quickly and efficiently if he didn't have a gun?" Easy. Wait for school to get out, run everyone down that's standing around outside with a car. If you want to kill a lot of people you will easily find a way to do it.

    March 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  26. NJ

    NO Atheists = NO school shootings!

    March 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • Fearfighter

      That is crazy! Most people in prison believe in god and you have the nerve to say this about atheist! The bottom line is life is YOUR experience not Mine.. And no I am not an Atheist but believe the question of God is to hard of a question for the simple minded monkey we call man!

      March 3, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  27. Coug9

    In response to the author's claim that we treated mental illness in the 60's with "proper medications" and "compassionate supervision"...........way off base! The medications we used in that era were not friendly or benign by any means.....may have been the only thing available at the time, but it is unfair to compare that eras treatments to today, and form a conclusion that this somehow contributes to more mental illness or even school shootings.

    March 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  28. Coug9

    Far more people die from drunk drivers than gun violence.......... the problem is not access to guns. The true problem is the lack of parents' involvement in their kids lives. They depend on the school system to teach their kids values and character.........which the schools cannot and should not be a part of. (Their job is to teach our kids math/science/language etc....not instil values or morals) Parents must step-up to the plate, and act like parents.

    March 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  29. Fearfighter

    Guns Suck! But here is an Idea that is LONG over due.. Trigger technology that only responds to certain element of a unique finger print.. This can be achieved and would reduce violence dramatically. We could even register felons finger prints in a data base that would make no gun respond to their finger on the trigger... That technology is where we should be headed. The guns manufactures need to get off their butts and bring new technology for safer weapons. That solves the shooting part!! But someone could still bludgeon you with a weapon..

    March 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • The Phantom

      What the hell would Russia do the next time they have a war? During WWII they had up to five soldiers using one rifle. As the front man with the rifle was killed or wounded the next soldier took up the rifle and continued. With your trigger they would end up in some pickle! Remember your history!

      March 3, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Reply
  30. smithed

    Guns have been a fixture in rural america since the founding. Young people had access to guns for hunting and protection. Yet the author cannot provide evidence of school violence with guns until relatively recent times. Since the availability of guns has been a constant, then the change must come from a change in society. Whether it is the "i am a victim culture" that elevates grievances to violence or something else, I do not know. This phenomena of violence parallels the suicide "epidemic" brought on by similar societal pathologies of modern America.

    March 3, 2012 at 6:04 pm | Reply
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