Politics & Policy

Why Parkland Happened

Parents and students at a memorial on the anniversary of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., February 14, 2019. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
A new book explains the failures of Broward County officials.

The post-Parkland debate was all about gun control. It should have focused at least as much on school safety and discipline.

In their new book Why Meadow Died, Andrew Pollack — whose daughter Meadow perished in the shooting — and education-policy expert Max Eden explain in detail the many warning signs the shooter had given off since his childhood. They leave no doubt that if the county had had sensible policies in place and even minimally competent employees, the shooting would not have happened. They further demonstrate that Broward County’s lax discipline has, perversely, been treated as a model for the rest of the nation because it reduces suspensions, expulsions, and arrests and thereby allegedly slows down the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The shooter, whom I’ll refer to as John Doe to avoid publishing his name, came from difficult circumstances. He was born to a “career criminal and drug addict.” His adoptive parents “effectively bought him” by giving his birth mother’s lawyer $50,000 to cover “expenses,” and later adopted his half-brother as well. At the age of two he threw a neighbor’s four-month-old infant in a pool; at three he bit his classmates enough to get kicked out of a private pre-K program. He was soon diagnosed with several cognitive difficulties, and in elementary school he moved between normal and special-ed classes as his teachers continued to document his aggression and sometimes needed to have him physically removed from classrooms. One day he watched his adoptive father die of a heart attack.

In keeping with Broward’s priorities and national pressures to avoid “excluding” children, Doe went to the same middle school as all his peers, where his behavior became increasingly disturbing. He tortured animals and showed images of this behavior to his classmates. He threatened school staff. He punched holes in the walls at home when he lost Xbox games. He ran into traffic during a fire drill.

Doe was suspended repeatedly. He was even placed on “escort only status,” meaning any time he left class he’d be accompanied by security. In Broward County, though, it’s exceedingly difficult to move a child to a special school even in such an extreme case. Schools must go through a four- to six-month process of parent conferences, evaluations, and plans to improve.

Here’s the most maddening thing, though: Doe’s teachers did all that, and got him moved to Cross Creek, a small, intensive school for students with exceptional needs, in February 2014. The staff there were alarmed by his obsession with violence, guns, and gore; recommended that his mother remove sharp objects from his home; and wrote a worried letter to his private psychiatrist in the hopes his medications could be adjusted. Cross Creek is a K–12 school, so he could have stayed there for the remainder of his education, unless he needed to be fully institutionalized.

He started behaving a little better around October, though, which proved enough to get him “mainstreamed” again the following year — and sent to Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a sophomore. Shortly thereafter he threatened to “shoot up the school” in an Instagram post; a woman who called the police was told Doe had a First Amendment right to make such a statement. School security quickly learned they had to keep a constant eye on him. Doe wrote “I Hate [N*****s]” on his backpack, was briefly suspended for drawing a swastika on a lunch table, brought dead animals and knives to school, and started threatening an ex-girlfriend and a male friend of hers. There’s some evidence he was repeatedly suspended without the suspensions being recorded properly. But he wasn’t sent back to Cross Creek.

Starting just days before his 18th birthday, Doe threw several more red flags in the air. He viciously attacked a fellow student while using the N word. This resulted not in an arrest, but in a new rule that Doe was no longer allowed to bring a backpack to school, to make it harder for him to bring in weapons. Just a few days later, Doe’s adoptive mother was so troubled by his behavior she called Youth Emergency Services to see if he should be institutionalized. Naturally, he was not. He told a classmate he’d been cutting himself and drinking gasoline, and his mother was advised to keep sharp objects away from him again. He wrote “kill” in a notebook; when asked why, he “explained that his mother had decided not to allow him to get an ID, so he couldn’t buy a gun.”

But his mother eventually relented — and through all of this, no official had managed to get Doe the kind of criminal or mental-health record it would take to make him fail a background check. As a matter of policy, the school system deliberately avoided getting police involved in student crimes: One rule allowed students to commit three misdemeanors a year before law enforcement was even an option; arrests were optional for felonies too. Beyond that, a lot of Doe’s misbehavior was reported to school staff but not recorded properly. Still, the police were also well aware of what was going on with Doe. They were called to his house 45 times, though some of these calls pertained to his brother.

Once Doe became an adult, it got harder to send him back to Cross Creek if he didn’t want to go, but still there were efforts to do so. He avoided them by waiving his special-education status and the protections that come with them. The threats continued, and eventually he was pushed out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas without technically being expelled. He later tried to go back to Cross Creek, which could have happened quickly, but bureaucratic incompetence prevented it.

As it became clear he’d never graduate from high school, Doe let off yet another series of threats, some of which made their way to law enforcement. A few months before the shooting, his adoptive mother, nearly 70 years old, passed away. He went to live with friends of the family.

On the day of the shooting itself, even more incompetence and bad policies revealed themselves. When Doe approached the building, he walked through a gate that should have been locked. A school safety monitor passed him, instantly knew it was a problem for Doe to be walking onto campus with a rifle bag, and yet neither intercepted him nor called a “Code Red” that would have instructed everyone to shelter in place with the doors locked rather than pour into the hallways — which is exactly what many students did when the fire alarm went off, apparently from gun smoke. That fire alarm, incidentally, was oversensitive and obsolete and should already have been replaced. No other adult called a Code Red either: Against standard practice, the school’s principal had decided no one could call a Code Red but him, to avoid false alarms that could bring bad PR, and the principal was gone that day. Most notoriously, school resource officer Scot Peterson hid outside the building the entire time rather than confronting the shooter.

The shooting could have been stopped years before it started and could have played out differently. Every step of the way, officials failed. These failures were sure to result in a catastrophe of some kind, if not necessarily a massacre.

And at least when it comes to the lax discipline policies, Broward County is no exception. Quite to the contrary, its decision to downplay or ignore teenagers’ crimes on school property have been treated as a model for the rest of the nation, especially when it comes to reducing racial gaps in discipline and arrests that often stem from gaps in misbehavior, not bias. The Obama administration pushed such policies on the entire nation through a “Dear Colleague” letter; the Trump administration has revoked the letter, though of course left-leaning school districts will keep heading in this direction whether the federal government twists their arms into it or not.

Why Meadow Died is a thorough, disturbing exposé of the school district that inspired rave reviews  from liberal education reformers who hate harsh discipline — but failed to do what was necessary to help a demented young man or protect his peers. It should inspire parents nationwide to pay closer attention to what happens in their kids’ schools and fight to change it. And anyone involved in running a school district should hang on this book’s every word, because this review only scratches the surface of the specific policies involved and how badly they failed.

Whether reform efforts will succeed, though, is highly uncertain. Pollack’s own drive to remake the Broward County school board failed, and the authorities featured in the book are, for the most part, still in charge there.

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