UPDATE: Candidate doubles down on blaming ‘self-esteem’ for school shootings

"I fear another Columbine is inevitable" if schools keep coddling teens, Leah Vukmir wrote.

Wisconsin state Senator Leah Vukmir is vying for the Republican nomination in the state's U.S. Senate race. Blog posts from an education reform group Vukmir started in the 1990s open a window onto her conservative views. SOURCE: leahvukmir.com
Wisconsin state Senator Leah Vukmir is vying for the Republican nomination in the state's U.S. Senate race. Blog posts from an education reform group Vukmir started in the 1990s open a window onto her conservative views. SOURCE: leahvukmir.com

Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir blamed school shootings on “school programs aimed at coddling teens” in a blog post written shortly after the Columbine High School shooting.

Vukmir, who has served in the Wisconsin state legislature since 2002, wrote a blog post in September 1999 that blamed “the self-esteem movement” in schools for a mass shooting at Columbine High School, in Jefferson County, Colorado, five months prior that left 15 dead and 24 injured. Other posts on the site open a window onto Vukmir’s deeply conservative views about education.

“[O]ur national obsession with the feelings of teenagers has played an enormous but heretofore unrecognized role in what is transpiring nationwide,” Vukmir wrote in the post about Columbine. “Unless we change our attitudes and approach to dealing with the normal developmental phase of [the] years known as adolescence, I fear another Columbine is inevitable.”

Vukmir criticized what she said was parents and administrators “coddling” teens’ emotions and making them “self-absorbed” rather than teaching them to roll with the punches. “It is under these circumstances that a despondent teen may find no other recourse but to lose control and act out violently,” she said.

The Vukmir campaign declined to comment.

The blog post about Columbine was first reported by Milwaukee Magazine in September 2016. Vukmir published it on the website for Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, a conservative education reform group she founded with 12 other parents in August 1993. The site is no longer online, but an archived copy is available at the Internet Archive.

Columbine experts don’t see coddling

Experts disagree on what drove Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to open fire on their classmates on April 20, 1999, in what was, until recently, the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history. But their explanations focus on the killers’ individual psychologies or the school’s social environment — not school officials trying to boost teens’ self esteem.

Jeff Kass, the author of Columbine: A True Crime Story, was one of the first reporters on the scene. He says there’s little evidence Columbine High School “coddled” Harris and Klebold. Instead, he believes the two carried out the shooting because they resented a society they felt had put them at the bottom of the social ladder. That fueled their rage and made them lash out in revenge, according to Kass.

“The Columbine killers did feel like outcasts, and they did experience a lot of pain and sorrow,” Kass told ThinkProgress. “So I don’t know how they were protected from it.”

Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s lead Columbine investigator, and Frank Ochberg, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Michigan State University, came to different conclusions about Harris and Klebold’s motives. In a 2004 interview with Slate, Fuselier and Ochberg said Harris was a psychopath whose contempt for everyone around him drove him to involve his friend Klebold in the deadly plot.

“Klebold was hurting inside while Harris wanted to hurt people,” Fuselier told Slate.

Fuselier and Ochberg took part in a Federal Bureau of Investigation symposium on school shootings in Leesburg, Virginia, three months after the Columbine shootings. A subsequent report from the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group identified several factors in the school environment that can contribute to a shooting, including administrators who tolerate bullying, unfairly applying discipline, an inflexible school culture, and a rigid social order. The report makes no mention of the “self-esteem movement” or emotional coddling.

The report did note that potential school shooters often externalize blame for their problems, failing to take responsibility themselves. But it also pointed out the role low-self esteem can play in a potential shooter’s personality.

“Though he may display an arrogant, self-glorifying attitude, the student’s conduct often appears to veil an underlying low self-esteem,” the report said. “He avoids high visibility or involvement in school activities, and other students may consider him a nonentity.”

Fringe views on education

Vukmir is a pediatric nurse practitioner and a mother of two. Her political career began in 1993, when she founded Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools.

As she tells it, Vukmir was spurred to action when her 5-year-old daughter Elena brought a creative spelling assignment home from public school. That worried Vukmir, who wanted her daughter to learn phonics and proper spelling, not the creative reading and writing that are part of the “whole language” learning model.

When Elena’s teachers said they wouldn’t start correcting her work for a couple of years, Vukmir complained to school officials. One administrator dubbed Vukmir a “right-wing wacko,” she told Milwaukee Magazine, and she decided to place Elena in parochial school.

By 1997, over 1,000 Wisconsin families were receiving Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools’ quarterly newsletter. Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson appointed Vukmir to a committee on school improvement, and she co-authored a report on state school standards published by the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

Vukmir ran for Scott Walker’s vacant Wisconsin Assembly seat in 2002, beating Libertarian Party candidate David Comey in a landslide. In 2011, she joined the state Senate, beating incumbent Democrat Jim Sullivan.

Vukmir has made education reform one of her signature issues in the Wisconsin legislature. Now, she’s running against businessman Kevin Nicholson for the Republican nomination in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race. If nominated, she’ll run against incumbent Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin in this year’s midterm election.

A window on Vukmir’s conservative views

The archived website for Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools opens a window on the ideas and events that formed Vukmir’s political outlook.

In one blog post from November 1998, Vukmir describes watching in shock as a historical reenactor at Colonial Williamsburg, in Williamsburg, Virginia, asked a baffled child about Paul Revere. The child couldn’t answer questions about Revere, Vukmir wrote, but instantly knew about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman when asked.

“In an attempt to broaden the focus in our classrooms today, how is it possible to teach our country’s history without a detailed understanding of the life and times of our nation’s founders?” Vukmir asked herself after the incident. “How is it possible for children to fully understand the courage of Harriet Tubman if they have no concept of the 100 years of history that preceded her struggle?”

In another blog post from July 1997, Vukmir discusses attending a White House conference on character building at the U.S. Capitol, where she wondered if it was schools’ place to teach values like responsibility, fairness, and integrity.

“On the one side, I saw a group of parents outraged at the thought of schools taking on yet another of their primary responsibilities,” Vukmir wrote of the conference. “On the other side, I saw teachers and administrators scolding parents for not teaching these values in the first place, therefore necessitating a school program to ‘aid the greater society.’ Both sides have merit. Who is right?”

It’s unclear when the Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools website went offline. But Vukmir’s last blog post is the one about Columbine, from September 1999.

“Perhaps [schools] could save money and lives by teaching kids an old-fashioned lesson: life isn’t always easy,” Vukmir concludes in that post. “There will be rough times in high school and beyond. The time to get used to it is now.”


UPDATE, Feb. 21, 2018: After a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last week that left 17 dead and 14 injured, Wisconsin U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir (R) doubled down on past comments blaming school shootings on “the self-esteem movement.”

In an interview with The Washington Examiner reported Wednesday, Vukmir called school shootings “a multifaceted problem” but said the self-esteem movement in schools is “one of the factors.”

“It is a multifaceted problem, and that was one article talking about one factor,” Vukmir said of a September 1999 blog post about the Columbine High School shooting. “But obviously there are a variety of factors underlying this. I’m very cognizant as a healthcare professional that we have to do a better job identifying these kids who are troubled and not be afraid to speak out.”

Vukmir’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress immediately following the Parkland shooting.