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. Ruiz

    A very sad time in our country. I pray for all the victims, their families, and all our young people. There is such a demand for separation of church and state, but after terrible tragedy, helping others with prayer may be permitted, that is until the atheists sue again. I guess praying, talking about God along with treating others with love and kindness is just too inflammatory, and offends some people. Could it be that permitting God and prayer in school might actually help our young people, encourage them to want to help others, and treat others with love, kindness, and respect?

    February 28, 2012 at 11:51 am | Reply
    • pastmorm

      Putting YOUR god in school prayers might work for you Ruiz, but not everybody in America believes in your god...that's why it's schools don't have prayer.

      February 28, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
      • Ruiz

        How do you know which God is my God, pastmorm? It is a sad time in our country when atheists can take away freedoms than those who believe in God. I will continue to pray for our country, how about you?

        February 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • a cut above the rest

      I'm sure that a tragety like this, students will be called together to pray, but after this tragety passes, "oh, no, don't pray! don't mention God!"....Most poeple in this country just become "faithful" & only pray when something goes bad. Pretty sad....Plus, kids aren't taught to respect life..They're just told to engage in gratification and have abortions.

      The public schools educates nothing but the culture of life. If the child doesn't get the "correct" teachings from home, they are to be in big trouble.

      Instead of pointing the finger at the "outcast" and the "bullies", maybe the parents and the teachers need to look at themselves for what they teach (or lack of what they teach) to the children in the USA?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  2. pastmorm

    We have more shootings here in American because of the gun laws. We have more shootings here in the US because of our school system (the one that Bush installed). We have more shootings here in the US because per capita, there are fewer intelligent people compared to other countries. We have more shootings in the US because we're a violent nation by nature.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:52 am | Reply
  3. dave

    Access to guns-plain and simple We've had some school shootings in Canada. A couple of big ones at the college level. We have far less access to guns but probably more than Europeans.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:52 am | Reply
  4. wallace

    When the federal government stepped in long time ago and said you should not discipline your kids, they took over. Now you want an answer why kids do what they do. Very simple, the government said you can't touch them so they run rampant and do what ever the hell they want to do.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
  5. Donnie the Lion

    "You take them from people, the criminals will find a way to get them... and if not that, they will find a way to make one." criminals aren't smart enough to make guns. they are criminals because of inferior intellect and laziness to get legitimate employment. The guy whose life story inspired the movie "Goodfellas" summed it up: "Work is for suckers."

    February 28, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
  6. Grandi

    Why is no one talking about the parents being mostly responsible? Teach your kids to treat others with respect. Teach them about being bullied and being a bully, Talk to them, communicate all aspects of life. Teach them right from wrong. Put down your electronics and listen to them. Kids don't just up and shoot someone. They need their parents, parent, to teach them how to conduct themselves in the world. What happened to learning right from wrong? It needs to start at a very early age. Trust me, I know. I raised three amazing boys.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
  7. Jesse

    "coder" that was an interesting reply

    February 28, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply
  8. a cut above the rest

    Why is the USA #1 in school shootings? HHHmmmm, politically correct BS–cuasing favoratism to some groups and alienation of others, no prayer in schools (can't have the 10 commandments in the schools–wouldn't want to have kids learn to not kill, steal and to not be lustful!), no teaching of morals, the teachers worry more about teaching grade school kids to put condoms on bananas, Kids being brainwashed into being "liberals' (yet are the ones that spread the most hate and treat others in cruel and inhuman ways)!....History books filled with lies about our forefathers–resulting in a distortion and degrating vision of America. Educating a distortion of living a quality of life. Teachers not being tolerant of all students–and not reaching out to the "outcasts". Teachers looking the other way from trouble (but Kudos to the Coach who helped removing the suspect!), lack of anti-drug education....
    I could go on but this kind of covers it!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • Cynic

      "Lack of anti-drug education!" Did you ever hear of D.A.R.E? Did you ever hear of "zero-tolerance" policies? Did you ever hear of drug-testing students? Did you ever hear of drug-sniffing dogs in the school hallway? Where have you been for the last three decades?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
      • Steve Lyons

        We need to have a policy of sending kids that "need medication" to alternate facilities, so they are not a risk to "normal" kids. I'd like to see a lit of meds this shooter was on or supposed to be taking.

        February 28, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  9. TenHut

    You get rid of the guns by controlling the manufacture of bullets. Stupid!

    February 28, 2012 at 11:57 am | Reply
  10. M.E.

    If we made it harder to get ahold of guns, people would just stab or bludgeon one another. But quite frankly, it's much harder to kill someone with a knife or blunt object than it is to kill them with a gun so it makes at least some sense.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
  11. cbtx67

    The problem with guns comes down to two distinct factors. Bad parenting and the number of and projection of bullets. Many parents don't lock up their guns, usually bad parents do bad things and have guns around. Therefore the soon to be bad kid has access to something he shouldn't. Second, guns have bullets. If you have a knife, perhaps you get one or two or three before somebody tackles them and disarms him. (I don't know what happened on those planes on 911 so I won't comment. ) Maybe one or two kids get killed, but you don't get the carnage on the scale of Virginia Tech. Guns are also a very impersonal way to kill, you don't have to get close to look the victim in the eyes and you can get people from across the room. You don't run the risk of the victim actually wrestling with you and potentially kickin your ar se. This makes the "misused" gun the tool of a coward. (Not talking about cops or soldiers here obviously) I also agree with a previous poster that said that if there was a govt takeover, one or two or even ten lil rifles/pistols would do nothing. You'd be screwed just like the rest of us...it would just take a lil longer, maybe 30 minutes.

    February 28, 2012 at 11:58 am | Reply
  12. Rae Ann Pointer

    Oakland,California has more than 100 murders a year but the media never covers it. Why? It doesn't fit their narrative that strict gun control works.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • LaneG

      WRONG, Ca is a anti gun state and look at allthe murders. Pro gun states have much less crime. Get real and get your facts straight.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Reply
      • Robert

        Did you even read what it is you are commenting about, or more precise, did you understand what the writer was saying???

        February 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  13. dj

    I can't believe that the author of this story didn't mention the media. Incessant coverage and glamorization of such evil plants the seed for the next mixed-up kid to repeat the cycle. Throw in all of the violent movies and the TV cop and murder shows shown constantly as acceptable and desired entertainment, and it's inevitable that someone will again get the idea to do such evil to other humans.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  14. Pam

    You're missing the elephant in the room. The US has twice the shootings as other countries, but prescribes twice as much Prozac and other antidepressants. These shooting didn't start until after the introduction of antidepressants. It started as the mail carrier "going postal" and once doctors started prescribing to children, we had the first school shooting. I firmly believe that there is a small percentage of the population majorly and adversly affected by antidepressants. In almost every school shooting, antidepressants are being used by the perpetrator. We didn't suddenly have a massive culture shift where shooting up a school became acceptable. We just decided to drug the problems instead of deal with them.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
    • Steve Lyons

      That's why we should all say NO to drugs.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  15. bUDDY

    bECAUSE THEY DID NOT COUNT BOMB VESTS

    February 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  16. LaneG

    wow people. With the mentality of some people on here it is easy to see why we have so many problems in this country. Guns are not the problem. They are a tool. How many will die today becouse of drunks of knifes or beatings. should we get rid of the booze, knifes and fists. In the big picture very few people get killed by guns compared to other ways. If this happened with a baseball bat would we outlaw baseball. Get real people the awnser is to get parents to be responsable to there kids. If the parents had done the responsable thing thing mabee this would not have happened. and lets not forget the thousands of people that are saved with guns everydaY BY RESPONSABLE PEOPLE.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • a cut above the rest

      Banning guns is BS. More rural areas where poeple are known to own guns, I've read of studies, actually have lower killings and criminal activity. Why? Because poeple won't mess with other poeple's stuff and would be scared to get shot–For they know the community is gun packing.

      If hoodlums or someone is desperate enough to buy a gun, it will be bought illegally....

      February 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  17. Steve Lyons

    Highest percentage of population or highest in terms of gross numbers?
    The ACLU has had a major role in abolishing discipline in public schools by curbing corporal punishment.
    We need to get discipline back in schools and prevent parents from suing schools that maintain order.
    Further we need to get "problem" kids help or expel them.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  18. Voltairine

    “Why is U.S. No. 1 in school shootings”: Because mental healthcare isn’t taken seriously in this country, where society tacitly and openly accepts the occasional massacre rather than paying more money in taxes for additional preventative measures.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  19. 1st

    1) Past and Present Social Conservatives feeling priviledged while denying others of Life, Liberty & Pursuit of Happiness. (Meaning you're not one of us so you are'nt welcome to what we have.) 2) Similar to #1, and due to lack of education many children of Social Conservatives will stay segregated though famiy influence and harbor racism and prejudice toward other's. ( Ancestral Racism, past to present.) 3) America's promotion of created chaos control, through cause & effect to promote her Law & Order.) 4) In the Urban area's, it's more business oriented and includes 1-3. The N.R.A protect gun shops, gun shops a sell to a customer in a suburb with a gun permit, the said customer sell it for more than it was brought for to someone in the urban area. ( 7 out of 10 a criminal.) Police in turn arrest said criminal and there's the trickling down of the business and payments. ( Judges, Lawyers all included in the business of gun sales.)

    February 28, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Reply
  20. rw

    take prayer out of schools and you invite alot of other issues in

    February 28, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      Like truth and reality?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
      • a cut above the rest

        no, like disprespect for life, immorality and violence.

        February 28, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
      • JeramieH

        A fairy tale isn't required to respect life.

        February 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  21. Duy

    I just thought about this topic this morning. I grew up in the different country, and over there I don;t think I heard about student shooting ever...Instead they have different issues, like girls fighting, or students stealing... Those are worst scenario. Im just wondering are we in America having so much freedom on gun issue? I meant I saw my friend holding a gun the other day for hunting...

    February 28, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  22. MV

    Fact Check: 32 students were killed at VT, not 37. 33 if you include him.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  23. D Russell

    The right to bear arms comes with a cost that is not popular to talk about if you are pro 2nd Ammendment. The availability of hand guns does in fact mean that there will be more deaths by guns. This is a fact you can't argue away with ideology even if it would be convient to do so. The real question then is "do we as a society hold the right to bear arms and have those arms available as more important than the deaths we know having this policy will inadvertanly cause". Freedom is not free, and all rights have a cost associated with them. I am pro 2nd Ammendment and I accept the trade off. Those who are pro-2nd Ammendment like me and yet try and argue about knives and other silly things are either being simple or dishonest. It is a trade off – just accept it.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
    • grasslandhero

      Having guns all over the place is part of the problem. The other part is putting them in the hands of emotionally unstable people. Teenagers are all emotionally unstable – they should not be taught how to use guns.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  24. Rick

    Kids are just acting out their video games. Do parents have any idea the kind of games their kids are playing?

    February 28, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Reply
    • Steve Lyons

      Is there a video game called "grudge of the bullied?"

      Wow maybe I can market that one for Facebook.

      Maybe Facebook and all the social media is to blame.

      If you are not on line you are not a "victim of on line bullying".

      Think about that for a while.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  25. David in TX

    All you have to do is live in Texas for a short while and it all become very clear

    February 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      Since we don't – how 'bout you explain yourself?

      February 28, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  26. jojo

    Maybe it's just man's nature to torment the not so capable or those who are different. I am not sure if there is a solution. Incidents like this will cause the tormentors to think twice before making someone's life difficult.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  27. OhioAnon

    School shootings are on the rise because these days kids are weak little things that are brought up in a world that's like a padded room. You can thank liberal dimwits for this. Hopefully people learn and stop coddling their children.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  28. studdmuffins

    The owner of this gun should be held liable for the actions of this minor. Start holding owners responsible and owners will be more responsible.

    I am pro-gun ownership, though I own none of my own.

    February 28, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      Hear hear. I am anti-gun ownership, even though I do own one (my hunting rifle I used many years ago).

      February 28, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Reply
  29. gunnie

    Hey here's a novel idea, how about the parents teaching their children right and wrong instead of sending them to school and hoping the teachers will do the job for them!!

    February 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
    • Steve Lyons

      How about we get all the PC studies out of the schools as well. Socialism is NOT conducive to a respectful society. Society doesn't owe you a free ride.

      February 28, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
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