‘Exposing Everything That Went Wrong’: A Parkland Researcher Speaks Out

Today is the second anniversary of the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed. Max Eden, an education researcher, who co-authored “Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students,” joins today’s podcast. Read the lightly edited interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:

We also cover these stories:

  • The Democrat-led House passed a bill that would eliminate the 1982 deadline to ratify the the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticizes President Donald Trump over his protests about the original seven- to nine-year jail recommendation for Roger Stone, a Trump ally.
  • According to a Gallup poll taken in January, 61% of Americans say they are better off than they were three years ago

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Rachel del Guidice: We are joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Max Eden. He’s an education researcher. Max, thank you so much for being with us today.

Max Eden: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

Del Guidice: Feb. 14 is the second anniversary of the Parkland shooting in Parkland, Florida, that took the lives of 17 people. Max, you co-authored a book about the shooting. The book is called “Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students.” Max, why did you write this book?

Eden: Immediately after the shooting, kind of two groups of students came forward. And one group got a lot more attention than the other.

The group of students [that] got attention said, “We blame the Second Amendment. We blame the NRA. We blame the gun for what happened.” The other group of students said, “We knew it was him before it was over. The student threatened to kill us. He threatened to rape us. He threatened to kill our families. He brought knives to school. He brought bullets to school. We saw something. We said something. They did nothing. They didn’t protect us from him.”

And kind of from my perch as researcher in D.C. when I saw this, I thought, “Oh, OK. Well, this is in a school district that became nationally famous for fighting the so-called school-to-prison pipeline by lowering arrests, lowering suspensions, lowering expulsions. I wonder if these policies, this kind of leniency pressure played a role in his journey through the school system.”

So I wrote an article kind of posing this question about 10 days after the shooting. And, unfortunately, this question kind of very quickly became an answer in politics, as happens, right? I mean, one side was for gun control and the other side was very quick to take the question and answer, “It wasn’t the gun’s fault. It was these policies. It was [former President Barack] Obama’s policies.”

It became a political football very quickly and nobody answered the question. It was labeled as fake news by the superintendent and most of the media skated on by.

But a couple months after the tragedy, I had wanted to see whether or not the answer was “yes” to the question that I had posed. And I found a way to get down there to talk to some students, talk to some teachers.

While I was down there, Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was murdered on the third floor, heard that there was somebody from D.C. who was looking for answers. And he got my number somehow, texted me, said, “Come over to my house.”

I explained to him what I was doing and kind of gave him some questions to ask and he texted me a couple of days later and said, “Thanks so much for your help, Max. You’re going to be a tremendous asset helping me find justice for my daughter’s murder.”

I came down thinking, “Oh, I’ll just come in for a few days, talk to a couple of people, and maybe write an article.” When I got that text, I knew I had to come down again.

After my second trip, I had talked to enough people that I got through him to realize, “Oh, wow, this is much bigger than our article. And also bigger than the discipline issue that I thought it had to do with.” That was part of it, but it was part of a broader story that needed to be a book for parents to understand it.

Del Guidice: So, Max, in the book you detail how the shooter … slipped through the cracks when there was just really an exorbitant amount of red flags and warning signs.

For example, I know that you said in the book that the police were called to [the shooter’s] home I think about 45 times. What were some of the other warning signs that just went unnoticed?

Eden: Well, they were noticed and ignored. I mean, in middle school, the student, when you read his teachers’ records, he kind of was fixated with guns daily. He would always talk about guns, always talk about shooting. Whenever the topic came up, he would kind of light up or he would bring up the topic himself.

His behavior in middle school was so egregiously bad that he was suspended every other day for about 10 months in middle school. And middle school discipline policy wasn’t the problem. The problem was there was a student whose behavior was so extreme that he required a security escort to walk in the hallways, to go to the bathroom, to do anything outside of the classroom. In some cases, teachers wouldn’t let him into their classroom without a security escort.

When the security escort wasn’t enough, the school got the mom to come and accompany the security escort accompanying him. And they kept him at this school for 10 months before they finally got the paperwork in order to send him to a specialized school where he very desperately needed to be.

At that specialized school, his behavior was so disturbing that they wrote a letter to his private psychiatrist after his first semester, basically saying, “This student told us that he dreams of killing and being covered in blood. He has extreme mood liability. We tried to take away all sharp objects in the home, but there’s a hatchet missing and there are still holes appearing on the walls. We’re very, very worried about the student.”

But after a couple of months of good behavior at that school, they thought, “Oh, he’s ready to attend a normal school again. And he seems to be very interested in the military, very interested in guns. All the teachers say that he’s interested in the military and guns. So let’s try him at a traditional high school for two courses for one semester, see how that goes. And we’ll do maybe one academic course and JROTC,” where he got to practice marksmanship.

I think we can have a gun control debate, we should have a gun control debate, but when you have a school district that’s taking a kid who has literally said, “I dream of killing and being covered in blood,” who talks about guns all the time, and they put them into a normal school and they gave him a gun and teach him how to shoot, maybe it’s something more than the school that we should be looking at.

Del Guidice: In your book, you obtained a lot of information that wasn’t public, at least at the time. How did you go about compiling all that information, gaining access to it? And given that you were so successful in that, what kind of impetus does that have on us to see what you uncovered and act on it?

Eden: It was not an easy process. There are federal education records, privacy laws that protect kids from adults who want to snoop and find out about them. And for good reason. But, unfortunately, those laws still apply after the student has committed a mass murder in school.

So at first, I had to just ask a whole bunch of questions to teachers and students and try to put inferences together. Like, “Oh. Well, you said this and he said that? And how do these pieces fit together? And how can I just take all of the stories that I’m finding and weave it into a story that makes sense, that fits, that coheres?”

After a certain point, though, I realized after one trip when I was talking with people … we never used the word victim to refer to the shooter, but we realized just how profoundly the system failed him. And as Andy has said, he blames the shooter for half of it. He blames the system for the other half.

I said to him at a certain point, “We’re basically going to be acting as your daughter’s murderers’ defense attorney in the court of public opinion. Because our argument is it’s their fault too. And that’s the exact same argument that his lawyer is going to be making. And we can’t get his official records, which would break the case wide open, so it might be worth talking to them about it and seeing if they’d provide it to us.”

He called me a few days later and said, “Yeah. So, I just talked to the defense attorney and they’re going to give us the records. I told them that at the trial I would take the stand and I’d bash the school district, bash the sheriff’s office, bash the mental health provider. So we’ll get the records.”

And that’s how we got a lot of the stuff that had never previously been reported. Because Andy, his sense of justice, his mission has been to expose everything that went wrong, every one who failed, hold as many people as possible accountable, and try to have everybody learn every lesson that there is to be learned.

So what will happen in the trial [is], we’ll see what he chooses to do and how it all plays out. But he took that step because he is so committed to having the full truth be exposed. That’s what we tried to take and weave into the story and put forward a product that parents and schools across the country can read …

It’s an anecdotal thing to say, but I can’t tell you how many people have DM’d him, DM’d me, have emailed us being like, “Oh, wow. I knew what was happening at my kid’s school, but I didn’t know what it all fit together and how big of a problem it was.” Or, “Oh, I read this book and then I started asking some questions and it turns out the exact same thing is happening here.”

So the mission of the book was, as Andy said, to expose. And the hope is that by exposing everything that went wrong with the shooter, every way that the school district failed him, that we can open parents’ eyes a little bit to ways that school districts are failing their kids in ways that will, God willing, never nearly approach the level of what happened there.

But times when there are other red flags being swept under the rug, other violence that goes unaddressed, bullying that is just ignored by administrators who have this pressure to fight the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, lowering suspensions, lowering expulsions, lowering arrests.

The easiest way to do that is to just not do anything, to sweep it under the rug, to say, “Hey, look, our numbers are looking better. That means our school’s getting safer.”

It’s up to parents at the end of the day to speak up against that because teachers are frequently too intimidated to say, “Hey, our principal’s leading our school in a very bad direction and our superintendent’s policies are totally out of whack.”

Teachers aren’t going to say that. If schools are going to start putting the safety of classrooms and the interest of students first, again, before these kind of fake numbers, that has to come from parents.

Del Guidice: In talking about the Parkland shooting, I can’t help but think back to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, which killed 58 people and wounded some, I think 413 others.

More than two years later, the motives of the shooter remain a mystery for the Vegas shooting. But in the case of Parkland, we kind of have the exact opposite where there’s a wealth of information on the alleged shooter and his background. But all this information doesn’t really fit the gun control narrative so it hasn’t been covered, at least to the extent that people want to see it covered. What’s been your experience with the media covering your own work?

Eden: The Vegas shooting laid into a much better case for, “It’s the AR-15, the so-called assault weapon.” Because you couldn’t have pulled that off with a handgun. You couldn’t have pulled that off with a shotgun. It was the gun that enabled the Vegas shooting and it was a gun that was legally acquired by a guy who otherwise looked clean. It’s a very alarming thing that fits that narrative very well.

In this case, as Andy has said, he could have killed 17 people with a musket that day. It did not matter what gun he had. He had 11 minutes alone in a school building with 800 kids. It did not matter that it was an AR-15. And he bought that gun legally despite having exhibited every red flag that in a functioning system would have prevented him from buying the gun.

He committed felony-level crimes that could have either got him directly prohibited or when the FBI and Broward Sheriff’s Office received tips, [they] could have showed up, could have made them think, “Oh, wow, this kid who threatened to kill somebody at school committed a hate crime assault, trespassed on campus. We’re getting a call that he might shoot up the school. Let’s look into that.” But they looked him up and they saw nothing.

I think that to answer your question directly about media reception, it’s been something that has been very upsetting to me, more so to Andy. He at one point said in an interview, “The only parents who will know about what really happened in Parkland, and will know what they need to know to keep their kids safe, are the parents who watch Fox News.”

It was no reception whatsoever in so-called mainstream media, no reception whatsoever in education media. It got all the attention in the world that we could have asked for within conservative media. It’s just very, very sad that it had to play out that way. Anything that isn’t pro-gun control is, in the way that the media and political environment shakes out, has to be anti-gun control.

And not that my opinion on gun control matters, but I actually came out of it probably more pro-gun control than I went in because I saw just how hard it can be to stop crazy people from getting guns.

There are pro-gun control changes that I would happily endorse, but it’s just a tragedy that because our book didn’t say, “you have to blame the gun and this is the primary issue,” it was cast as being a right-wing, pro-gun apology book when it was just what actually happened to the school and what parents needed to know to keep their own kids safe.

Del Guidice: Yeah. Wow, that’s really unfortunate. In your book, and you sort of alluded to this at the beginning of our discussion, you talked about how the school created a culture of leniency and part of this was through the school instituting a program called the Promise program. What was that program?

Eden: The Promise program was one part of a broader suite of kind of leniency reforms, and this part focused on lowering arrests. And it accomplished that goal by basically giving students four free misdemeanors a year before they were required to talk to law enforcement, and it reset every single year.

This program … let kids commit up to four crimes before they have to talk to a school resource officer, and at that point, arrest is probably still discouraged. That succeeded in getting arrests down by 70% and it was perceived to be a great success by the Broward County school district.

It became kind of a model for the nation. It was credited with inspiring this 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter by the Obama administration’s Department of Education, which was less focused on decriminalization and more focused on kind of lowering suspensions and detentions and expulsions.

But these same kind of policy pressures on principals and assistant principals, “Lower the numbers. We’re watching the numbers. We expect these numbers to get lower,” that has spread to schools across the country.

Probably at least half of schools, about 54% of schools in America have administrators who say that they’re implementing restorative justice, which is kind of what these new leniency policies go by.

We have situations where a teacher will send a student to the office and the student will come back five minutes later smiling with a lollipop and the teacher will be the one who will get flack from the administrator for sending a kid there because that means that you’re not doing your job as a teacher.

Now, the Promise program was the highest-profile aspect of it because it was just the most egregiously, “Oh wow, you’re going to lower arrest by not arresting kids.” But it was one part for the whole of these policies that prioritize almost transparently fake statistical progress in the name of allegedly fighting institutional racism, which is, of course, an allegation predicated on the idea that teachers are racist or ablest or can’t be trusted and need to be micromanaged and second guessed, which is fundamentally wrong and leads to all sorts of problems in and out of the classroom. Far short of what happened in Parkland.

Del Guidice: You mentioned that this Promise program resulted in nearly a 70% drop in school-based arrests and you also note in the book it allowed this 90% non-recidivism rate. How did this enable the shooter in the end?

Eden: There was some controversy or argument about this point. The Promise program itself only applied to the shooter once directly when he committed an act of vandalism in middle school that he was supposed to have been sent to the Promise program, but they didn’t keep track of him effectively because the program itself was just kind of fraudulent all the way down. It was chaotic. It was a very poorly run, a very toxic environment at the school.

So he seems to have been referred to the Promise program once in middle school. Didn’t go. They couldn’t figure out why he didn’t go. They couldn’t figure out whether or not he really didn’t go. They didn’t send them to the court system as they were supposed to, given that they didn’t go. The state commission looking into this kind of came to the conclusion that, well, that one incident itself wouldn’t have made a decisive difference in the course of events. So that’s not really the issue.

I don’t dissent from the opinion that that one act of vandalism wouldn’t have made a difference, but when he got to high school, he was committing crimes that did not qualify for the Promise program, that were felonies, not misdemeanors. Things that did not technically fall under the umbrella of the Promise program.

Not only was he not referred to the Promise program, nothing happened to him when he threatened to kill other students; when he called a student the N-word and attacked him, it was pretty clearly a hate crime assault; when he was no longer a student, when he trespassed on campus, having been labeled already by the security staff as like, “Oh, if there’s any kid who’s going to shoot up the school, it’s going to be that kid.”

So the Promise program directly only touched him once in a way that wasn’t decisive, but it created this broader culture of leniency that allowed him to commit crimes such that—and we only figured out this last part after the book released so it’s not in it—they eventually not only prohibited him from wearing a backpack to school after a series of kind of assaults and after, I believe, they found bullet casings in his backpack, they also frisked him every day to make sure that he wasn’t bringing a deadly weapon to school.

So you have a situation where you’re saying, “You’re not allowed to bring a backpack. We’re going to frisk you every day because as we admit later in our testimony to the police, we’re worried that he might bring a weapon and kill people, but arrest, not even on the table.”

Del Guidice: Wow. That is … definitely very alarming. So looking at all of this, were parents aware of all these changes that were made when, for example, the Promise program was implemented? Did they know the extent of everything that this program meant?

Eden: No. What Andy has said repeatedly is that he will never forgive himself for not knowing what was actually going on at his daughter’s school. Having no idea that there was somebody there who was so dangerous that they had to frisk him every single day. For knowing that kids could get away with that many crimes in a single year scot-free.

He had absolutely no idea, and his mission with everything that he’s done since, kind of our mission with the book, as he says, is that he wants to be the last father who can honestly say, “I had no idea what was going on at my daughter’s school.” …

The purpose of the project was, as you asked earlier, to not allow any other parent to make the excuse. Even when something happens like this again and it resembles Parkland, and sometimes it won’t—there was the shooting in California—sometimes they are out of the blue and there are no warning signs, but sometimes there are.

And schools will continue to sweep the warning signs under the rug unless parents take it to them. And the hope is that by opening their eyes to the example of what happened in Parkland, we can make it such that parents know … “I know what’s happening in my kid’s school. I understand the risks. I understand the dynamics and I have some idea what to do about if I find that what I’m reading about here fits what’s going on in my kid’s school too.”

Del Guidice: In the book you mentioned that [a] campus security guard, Andrew Medina, spotted [the shooter] the day of the shooting and he later told the police, “I saw him with a bag, with like a rifle bag, beelining to Building 12,” and that this officer said the shooter looked like he was on a mission and walking with purpose. And then this officer recognized [the shooter] and he thought, “Man, that’s the crazy boy, why wasn’t school security called?”

What was the breakdown at this point? Just looking back with all of the research you’ve done, the security guard is asking this question himself and looking back and telling listeners, “Why wasn’t security called?”

Eden: At that point, his job was to call a Code Red. You see a suspicious intruder. You fear that something might happen. You call a Code Red that’s broadcast over the intercom and everybody shelters in place.

If a Code Red had been called, then I think everybody on the third floor could have lived because everybody who died on the third floor died because the fire alarm went off.

When the fire alarm went off, one or two of the teachers knew the sound of gunshots when they heard them before. The other teachers didn’t put it together. They put their kids out into the hallway. Everybody who died in the third floor died in the hallway.

So if a Code Red had been called before the fire alarm went off, Meadow would be alive. Five other students would be, or four other students, one other teacher would be alive. But he did not call a Code Red himself.

And as he said, shortly after, he sees him go in, he starts to hear these loud percussion noises, like pow, pow, pow. “It’s not a firecracker noise,” he says. But he doesn’t call a Code Red because, these are his words, not mine, “If I call it and everybody comes in and it’s not really, I don’t want to be the guy who made that call.”

So this is the reductio ad absurdum slash ad infinitum of the whole story. You have a security guard. His one job is to call a Code Red when you see something like this happen. And when it almost couldn’t possibly be more clear what it was, he still doesn’t because he doesn’t want to get in trouble in case kids aren’t actually getting murdered.

That’s part and parcel of what happened with the shooter his whole way through. There was an obviously responsible decision that could have been made by an adult around him after he displayed disturbing behavior, and the obviously morally wrong decision was made by the adults and authority many times over because that’s what they were incentivized to do, because it was a path of least resistance for them, because it’s what their bosses wanted.

On the one hand, the Parkland school shooting has been called a total system failure, but on the other hand, you can’t really call what happened a failure because everybody who made a wrong decision made it for a reason, and made it pursuant to a policy.

These policies are not confined to Broward County and not confined to South Florida. They are found in many, many schools across the country and lead to thousands of tragedies every day that come nowhere near approaching the scope and the horror of what happened in Parkland, but will also never be reported and never acted on and won’t be changed unless parents take a really hard look at what happened there.

Del Guidice: We’ve talked a lot about how the school failed parents and students that day. In all of your research for this book, how did law enforcement fail students?

Eden: There is the before and the during. Before, as you said, the consistent behavior that he displayed wasn’t just displayed in school.

The police were called to his house 45 times before the shooting. They received tips. The FBI received tips. Broward Sheriff’s Office received tips. This is a guy who might shoot up the school. Never arrested. Every tip is dropped.

A lot of the attention of what happened that day has gone to Scot Peterson, who was the school resource officer on duty, who gets the memo of what happened, approaches the building, but then takes a step back, takes cover behind the building nearby, and stays there for what ends up being over 50 minutes, and not only doesn’t approach the building, but actually gets on the radio and basically tells the other police officers to make a perimeter, to not approach the 1200 building where he seems to have a very good reason to know exactly what’s happening.

And the tension focused mostly on him, but before the shooting was over, there were eight Broward sheriff’s officers on the scene hearing gunshots and none of them approached the building.

You can see body cam footage of one of them who gets out of the car. You can hear the shots in the background. [He] goes back to the car, takes his gun off, puts on his bulletproof vest, puts the gun back on, and then takes position behind the car.

You can listen to statements from other police officers. They take positions behind trees. And eventually, the Coral Springs police officers, officers who are given good training, not under the umbrella of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, they start coming in.

According to one of them, as they’re approaching, a Broward Sheriff’s officer who’s standing behind a tree says, “Don’t go in there. He’s got a gun.” At which point in time the Coral Springs police officer, who has a son inside the building, basically says “F you” and runs in, and the other Coral Springs officers run in as well.

But unfortunately, the good cops running into the building isn’t the end of the story. They get very delayed in their job of going through the building to try to clear it because the school district did not give the sheriff’s office access to their video equipment. You don’t want the cops to see what’s going on in schools because you’re trying to lower arrests, probably.

So as they’re going through the building, there are school administrators who are in the camera room saying to another school administrator what they’re seeing on the camera without having made it clear or it’s somehow getting lost in translation that the school administrators had rewound the tape several times and were describing delayed footage to the police.

So the police were being told, “The shooter is on the second floor,” when they were on the second floor, when they could see that there was no shooter. And ultimately, this confusion made it such that it took medical personnel 43 minutes to reach Meadow on the third floor.

She was shot nine times. It probably wouldn’t have helped. But other students who it might have—another student who might have died if it had been a couple of minutes longer, who could’ve been spared a lot if it had been a half-hour sooner.

It’s not just that parents should take a close look at what happened for all the warning signs of what went on in the school. I think the police offices, police departments need to understand the second-by-second, blow-by-blow of what happened that day because it’s hard to imagine a broader failure that could have occurred on their part.

Del Guidice: Looking at all of what we’ve discussed today and even what Andy said about him wanting to be the last dad who really can say, “I didn’t know what was going on in my daughter’s school,” and knowing everything you know now, what are some lessons for schools as well as parents going forward? And how can we avoid future things like this happening?

Eden: There’s a hardware and a software side to it. A lot of the attention went to the hardware side of it in the immediate aftermath. If you don’t want weapons getting into buildings, then a metal detector or an armed guard and a single point of entry will do more than almost anything. And if worse comes to worst and something like that happens, you want the police to be able to see what’s happening instantly.

So these are things that parents can—and, in my opinion, should—advocate for in their own communities. It’s things that can be kind of controversial, aren’t going to fit everywhere.

But then there’s the software side of it too. There’s the question of, are the dynamics that we describe in the book, that engendered and enabled the Parkland shooter, are those dynamics playing out in your kid’s school too?

And it’s ultimately on parents to find out because teachers aren’t going to stand up and point a finger at their bosses. They’re not going to go talk to the press immediately and say how bad everything around them is.

Parents need to talk to their students, talk to their teachers, and just ask a couple of basic questions, like, “Do you feel supported when it comes to discipline? Do you feel like your administrators, like the principal is sweeping problems under the rug? Is there a student in my son or daughter’s classroom who everybody knows shouldn’t be there?”

If the answer to any of those questions are “yes,” then it’s on the parents to take another step, to try to talk to the school board members, talk to the superintendent, and effect policy change.

These policies come down partly from pressure from the Obama administration Department of Education, partly from outside social justice activist groups, sometimes, and partly from state bureaucrats.

It’s framed as a social justice thing, right? Like lower suspensions because we’re trying to reduce bias and everything will get better. And if you’re a school board member or a superintendent, it’s very easy to want to believe these things, to believe these things.

But if there are parents who are coming to you consistently and saying, “Hey, this might have sounded nice, but my kid says that he was assaulted and that your principal did nothing,” or, “My daughter says that she was harassed and told the assistant principal and they didn’t do anything.” If the people who run schools at a local level hear that from parents, they’re in a position to actually address it.

I think part of the tragedy of Parkland is that, as I said, it was the most avoidable mass murder in American history.

Everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong, all for a reason, all at the local level, and it immediately became subsumed into a big, national political fight that distracted from what really went wrong.

And if such an avoidable tragedy hitting such a, frankly, high socioeconomic class community can’t make parents take a hard look at what’s going on in their kids’ schools, then it’s cause for a lot of concern.

Del Guidice: Well, Max, we appreciate you being with us here on The Daily Signal Podcast today, talking about everything you’ve learned, about your book. Thank you for taking time to be with us.

Eden: Thanks for having me.