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. nosnobunny

    Maybe because you haven't outlawed handguns. It's not rocket science.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • Jimbo

      So what do you suggest? That we round up all the handguns that are already out there? Ha, that will go over well.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:33 am | Reply
  2. Jimbo

    Why was the "The media" paragraph left out in this article? Hmmm, I wonder. I'm sure CNN believes that all this media attention really helps the problem. I'm sure the pshyco teens never thought they would get all over the front pages of the news after this happened.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
  3. saldunn

    Start chraging parents for not securing their guns better. These kids get these guns mostly from their parents homes. However, it not unusal for them to go to the nearest corner and buy one. You can not even attempt to bring up any gun legislations becaseu the right wing will go "crazy"

    February 28, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
  4. trex

    .......Another NRA victory today. Let's increase gun availabilty to kintergarden next. We sure cant interfere with our 2ND AMENDMENT RIGHTS. WAY TO GO gop, keep thoses hand guns coming.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • ClearAndPresentThinking

      As long as the possessor of a handgun in public is not treated as a terrorist, the killing will continue.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  5. Steve

    Have you watched our TV, seen our movies, played our video games? The solution they offer to almost any problem involves some sort of violence, usually with a gun. Add to that the ease at which anyone can get a deadly weapon and you get this result.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
  6. Jawbone

    Because we teach children that "Everyone's a Winner" from the time they are born. Then when they find out that isn't the case and that they've been lied to. Some of them snap because they can't handle it. Think about it. When did this kind of mass murder in schools start. Late 90s. Right about the time this kind of PC BS was in full swing.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
  7. Eric

    The U.S. has the highest school murder rate out of developed countries and also some of the most relaxed gun laws. Wow, what a big coincidence.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
  8. Ron

    god, guts and guns...

    February 28, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
  9. brad

    Guns don't kill people, people WITH guns kill people.. and all the laws in the world will NOT make things change, except unarm the people that can legally have guns, so that those who have guns illegally can easily steal/rob/kill them. Extra laws/exessive laws do NOT Help the lawlessness of those that dont care about the laws

    February 28, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
  10. Blanchjoe

    All I can say is that Thank God he, or someone in his family, were allowed the God Given American Right to buy and own a firearm with out the Obama-Government stepping in and the Obama-nanny telling them how to live. As soon as we get a good solid NRA supporting Fundamentalist Christain Republica in office, then we can arm All the school kids and everyone will be safe once and for all.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
    • Guester

      I assume you're trying to be ironic.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply
  11. Vivian Sample

    You think inner city schools are safe, you should come to Memphis. We have elementary kids bring gun to schools here all the time. Just a few weeks ago a high school student was shot after a game and killed. You just don't ever hear about it in the national news , but believe me it is far from safe in the city.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
  12. T%T

    Simple really, it is the huge amount of non-whites in America.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
  13. coastlinecascot

    Ill tell you two problems one parents not being involved in their kids life. Second not able to fight back in school. There are so many harsh punishments for kids trying to fight back against bullys. It used to take a beat down to a bully to shut them up. Now the bully gets away being a jerk and the one being bullied gets suspended.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
  14. keeth

    For all the heart, and love, and unity we say we have as a country, we don't. Our greed and fear keeps us apart. And then this happens in quiet little town where people say something like this isn't supposed to happen. Well, it does. And how many more need to die before we live up to who we say we are?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply
  15. MarcV

    "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." And until we get serious with gun owners who do not have their firearms secured, the problem will continue. Reports say this boy stole the gun from his uncle. Was the gun loaded? Locked up? If it was just lying around loaded then this uncle needs to take responsibility.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply
  16. Lusitano

    Why? Because of degenerative American upbringing; one can feel it from some of the comments made on this thread.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
  17. DS

    Growing up, if one had a problem with another it was handled after school, in the park and it was done. If you were dumb enough to shoot your mouth off again after getting your butt whipped, you got it again. Today, kids can't do anything. The mere mention of a fight between kids these days brings in the local swat team, anger management counselors and instant suspensions. They have no outlet and have been brought up to think as a gun as a power symbol.
    As kid we were taught to respect firearms in my family. The family gun cabinet was in my bedroom. I knew better than to play with guns....my dad would have whooped my butt if I took a gun out that cabinet if weren't for the purpose of hunting or target shooting. This incident is a result of poor parenting and a society that thinks that everything in this world should be painted with butterflies and unicorns.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
    • coastlinecascot

      bingo!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
  18. Jack Be Humble

    We haven't seen a report yet from the press on how the kid got the gun. The handgun should have been in a gun safe, with a security lock on it... not under a pillow somewhere, or in a drawer.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
  19. Mitch

    We're becoming #1 in all the worst ways and I'm uncertain if we have the will or vision to turn that trend around. We should be investing in education, providing for the health of all citizens, building up our infrastructure, etc, etc but most of our "representatives" simply play us against one another to stay in power.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
  20. Highschool Student

    I am in highschool right now as a senior and most of the comments i have just read talk about prevention and makeing sure everyone is caring about each other and all that hand holding crap. My school does all that stuff now and what most people dont see is our point of view. When we go through those anti-bullying lessons most take them as jokes and we just day dream till they are over,the lessons have no real effect and most people also say we need to control gun laws....bullcrap i firmly belive the right to bear arms but it is the neglagance of parents who dont keep their weapons properly secure and away from their children. Also recently in my area there have been a big amount of teen suicide, so everyone jumps on the band wagon of stopping teen suicide well we all know that within a month no one will care anymore until it happens again just like these school shootings. So in the end im just saying there is no real way to stop school shootings completely if someone wants to do it they will. People just need to be ready if they do happen and take action like tackle the crap out of the gunman instead of staying put waiting for them to walk around. It sounds cold but we just need to mourn those who have been lost and move on.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
  21. Russian Federation

    LMAO – you americans so funny. Here in Russia, if we have children that would take guns to school, they will be sent off to Siberia along with their parents for severe hard-labor conditions, very little food, and torture. You americans need to change your laws. In Russia there is no such thing as school shootings because of "bullying."

    February 28, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
  22. megin

    I see the anti gun people are out in force as usually so predictable. Never wanting to look at the real issue always blaming objects. Do you people want to ban cars too? Sigh, did you ever stop to think that its the absence of the guns that is doing this. OF course not cause you feel and react instead of using your head. Its the only thing children do NOT get an education on.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
    • Guester

      You can ignore the facts all you like but that doesn't make them go away. In similar countries the more guns you have in the public's hands the more gun deaths you have. Simple.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:54 am | Reply
      • Earnan M

        And yet the murder rate in the US has DROPPED 52% since the majority of US states passed "shall issue" concealed weapon laws that allow almost any adult citizen with a clean record to carry a loaded concealed gun almost anyplace they go.

        Gun murders down.

        Gun crimes down.

        Gun accidents down.

        Looks like your theory is full of fail.

        February 29, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Guester

      Among technologically advanced countries

      February 28, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  23. momo

    your all gay

    February 28, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
  24. jake

    It's more of a deeply ingrained culture where the gun is worshiped in America. The nonsense of the 2nd amendment is just that nonsense, as it relates to a very different time in our nation's history. Anyone who think's we need guns in the event we need to revolt against our own government is just ludicrious. The power people have will not come from the end of a gun, but from our ability to effect change with our vote, our knowledge, our abilities, and our desire to see such changes that benefit all of the people. Guns won't do that. Some will argue that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is an argument that can be applied to everything in life. It is an argument that simply fails and fails miserably. If it had any merit, than all drugs for example should be legalized since "it's people that use drugs, drugs don't use people". Sad, but that is the state of America where guns and religion share an unholy alliance. Guns for legitimate hunting is one thing, handguns serve only to be used on other people. Simple as that.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:39 am | Reply
    • Jimbo

      Sounds like Jake wants to start another civil war buy having our government go door to door and taking away peoples guns. That will have a pleasant ending.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • Guester

      Indeed. People have the idea of guns and 'freedom' tied up in so much mythology that it's impossible to even have a real discussion about them.

      February 28, 2012 at 10:43 am | Reply
    • megin

      bahahhaha tell that to Syria. What ever dude. Clinton: Arming Syrian rebels could help al Qaeda

      February 28, 2012 at 10:44 am | Reply
    • Concerned

      'Simple as that'? Couldn't be farther from the truth. Responsibility and respect. Period. From the youngest to the oldest, proper responsibility for our actions, words, and thoughts as well as respect for ourselves and those around us will go much farther in preventing this type of tragedy than whining about it and pointing fingers.
      As for my handguns, you may come get them if you think you can, it will not be effective. They are secured with fingerprint-identification security, trigger and mechanism locks where possible. I will prevent you from taking them, period.
      Be responsible, be respectful. Don't ignore instances where someone is being mis-treated, look up from your phone and get involved with the world around you. Quit blaming everyone else.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
      • jake

        Yes, simple as that. Your security is only as good as the technology is today. Tomorrow, that could change. We see the most elaborate and advance security systems get compromised. And yes, you are among the few that goes that extra mile to secure your handguns. Unfortunately, that doesn't apply in the majority of cases. Most handguns kept in homes are easily accessible to others as we see too often time and time again. The reality is that Americans more than any other group are hopelessly in love with guns. But as a former law enforcement officer, I have seen that love affair quickly change when it strikes home, a child losing their life playing with a gun, a relative "borrowing" it for "protection" or for a host of other reasons, some well intentioned, others not. Having seen the damage it can do to a human body or to a family never enters the mind of people when they are in love with guns. Regret and hate follows then. Trust me, it's not a pretty sight or one that you can forget. Having retired 10 years ago, I have yet to carry a firearm since then even though I can. Never used it then when working, nor need it now. And no...the government isn't coming to you door to take your guns, nor is the government going to abolish the rights and freedom of the people. Maybe 200 years ago, but not in this day and age. A rather childish argument for those that believe that.

        February 28, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Earnan M

      Jake wants our guns.

      Jake needs to be aware of the answer Americans will give him: "Molon Lave!"

      "Come and try to take 'em!"

      You'll get our bullets first.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:52 am | Reply
  25. dreamer96

    Why does America lead the world in school shooting..well how about some psycho babble.. maybe too much babble..

    Because own kids have easy access to weapons.weapons make anybody powerful,.but even without guns they would could still use knifes.(when I was growing up I remember a kid got knifed at one of our high school, and many fist fights in schools),.or other weapons..we are a society that glamorizes weapons...and fighting..

    And because our schools are one of the few places where kids from many different backgrounds all come together in close contact on a day to day basis...the rich the poor...the popular the unpopular...the smart and the rest...many different cultural backgrounds, our schools have to deal with the many prejudices, that the students and staff.. carry with them, have learned from their parents, and the society all around them... and like all animals we have a natural pecking order, which try as we might to control, still have, and kids and staff, are not always kind, we are humans, we have faults, ...and kids go through a lot of changes in body, mind, and emotions, and different friends, from kinder garden to 12th grade or even in College...because people learn in different ways, and our schools are based on competing, grading, promoting success, and punishing failure..Some kids have a plan for after they graduate, talk about it a lot, some do not, and are a little afraid and worried...we don't always recognize each student gifts, and strengths, but point out they weaknesses, we don't always offer enough help, or offer too much, try to control to much...And our kids are using social media so much...which is a double sided technology like all technology is..it can help and hurt, it can make us stronger, or tear us down...And kids have reached the age where they no longer believe in Santa Clause and see the world for what it is, see their parents for what they are, or at least think they do... and wonder where they are going to go next..All through school things are planned for them...and after graduation they maybe on their own...and they see that coming too..

    February 28, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • Earnan M

      So where were all the school shootings, back before 1968 and the Gun Control Act?

      Back in those days, anyone could buy a gun for under $20. Just tear the ad out of the back of Popular Mechanics and drop it in the mail with a money order, and a couple of weeks later it'd be delivered to your door by the mailman.

      No ID required. No questions asked.

      The US government would even sell you a semi-automatic rifle and all the ammo you wanted, for pennies a round.

      Guns were sold at Sears, at JC Penney's, at K-Mart. Guns and ammunition were for sale in gas stations and hardware stores. You could buy a military semi-automatic rifle at Wollworths.

      Yet no one was taking a gun to school and shooting as many of their classmates as they could.

      February 29, 2012 at 8:58 am | Reply
  26. Mike in Pekin

    Why is this more of a Problem in the US? More than anything, it boils down to parenting, or the lack thereof. From the parents of bullies not teaching their children how to properly treat and respect others, to the parents of the perpetrators who are completely oblivious to their childs issues, this is an issue of parenting. In every case where this has happend, the perpetrator was found to be an outcast, the child who did not fit in, and was picked on for it. The victims are most often those classmates who that child saw as their tormentors. As the facts of this story unfold, I am confident that this will yet again be the case.

    I empathize with the parents of all of these children, victims and perpetrators alike. But they all could have taken steps to prevent things from reaching this point. If you teach your children the following things, these situations can be avoided.

    1. Don't be a bully. Treat every other person the same way that you would want to be treated.
    2. If you see bullying occurring, stand up against it. All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing (I don't remember who said this, but it is eternally true.)
    3. Know how to react if you are bullied. Learn strategies for evading these situations, but in every instance, report it to a person of authority. You are not a victim until you surrender your personal power to resist and protest.
    4. If you are a person in authority, look out for this kind of behavior. Bullies know their behavior is not acceptable, and will avoid doing it in front of authority figures. If you do see it, and you do not act on it, it will only embolden the bully, and further alienate the victim. (see item 2 above).
    5. If you are a parent, pay attention when the school calls with concerns. Teachers and Administrators do not have the time to call parents randomly over small things. Normally, by the time they make the decision to call home, the situation has become significant.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
  27. Dan

    Folks it is time to address the real problem. It is a problem that has been creeping in our school system for years. It is the new age parent. These parents have no idea how to raise kids. Discipline is a thing of past. These new age parents control how our kids are taught. Even in high performing charter schools such as DSST. These new age parents wield the power to force teachers to be a child’s friend rather than to push and educate them. This has a trickle down affect with schools and how they view security. Schools don't take security seriously. Because parents all say my little Johnny would never hurt anyone. Well folks two things.
    1) Your child may or may NOT be an angel
    2) Teachers are not there to be your child's friend. They are there to teach and push them to have a chance in life. Not everyone is a winner. When you lose you need to get back up and work harder.. Where has this lesson gone?

    It is time to take some decision power away from the new age parent. These new age parents are idiots and can't be trusted to make decisions that are beneficial for all of society. These shootings make me so mad because they are preventable. All it takes is one principle to stand up and look these new age parents in the eye and lay the law down on them. We need to start holding these new age parents accountable. period. I am talking jail time, prison. If you are too busy to know what your kid is doing and when. If you let your kid be the parent and decide everything for them self. If you can’t discipline your child. Then you don't deserve to be a parent and you need to be taken out of the equation. period.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • bmd0321

      Spare the rod, spoil the child. You hit it right on the head!!!!

      February 28, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
    • The REAL Truth...

      Dan, excellent comment. The problem is that the school's hands are tied. You cannot discipline in public schools and the staff AND students know that. The Principal can do nothing when some kid has a parent who's an attorney that will take them [and the district] to court – based on some infringement on their rights. Isn't that how we lost prayer in school ?

      I know of one kid in our school district whose Attorney "Mom" literally waits for ANY incident at school involving their child – no matter how frivolous – that can be used as the basis for such a lawsuit. They make $$ of it AND a name for themselves in the process. It sucks, but there's nothing that can be done.

      February 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  28. Diane

    Ask the NRA.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:43 am | Reply
  29. calvin

    When you Take God out of the equation of anything these are the problems that occur. PRAYER is the key, and no prayer in schools/anywhere causes many problems.

    February 28, 2012 at 10:44 am | Reply
    • Nryz

      How is prayer going to help? There were school shootings long before prayer was removed from school. And in terms of violence... Muslim terrorists likely pray several times a day.

      February 28, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  30. keith a dewey

    What a well written article. Frank really worked at being objective and factual. He is a real accademic intellectual. As neutral as he was some glaring facts brought to light two real differences between the US and other countries. Poor health system and easy access to guns are the big differences. So as a liberal I beseech the conservatives to please stop killing Americans. Why do you hate us so?

    February 28, 2012 at 10:44 am | Reply
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