Ep. 139: Big Ideas – “Why Meadow Died” with Max Eden

September 24, 2019

In this episode, we talk with the co-author of Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created The Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students. He discusses student disability policies, pressures on institutions to ‘look as though they have no problems,’ and more in light of recent school shootings.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice. This is a part of our Big Ideas series where we interview authors of books that have something interesting to say about school choice and education policy more broadly. This episode comes with a warning. We will be discussing school shootings, and at some points, the conversation might be somewhat graphic. So, this is just a warning to those listeners out there who might have young children listening.

We want to forewarn you that, again, this topic deals with very serious issues, so you are hereby forewarned. My guest today is Max Eden. He is an education policy analyst and the co-author of Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created The Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students. Max, welcome to the program.

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

Jason Bedrick: Before we get into the Parkland shooting, I think it’s worth noting that the context of why I brought you on. There was a study not too long ago conducted by Marty Lueken, my colleague here at EdChoice, and Corey DeAngelis, who’s now of the Reason Foundation, that used survey data in Indiana to compare safety in district schools versus private and charter schools. And what they found was that students and teachers in private and charter schools tended to be much more likely to report never having safety problems in their school than those who were in traditional public schools.

As a matter of fact, they found that private school leaders in Indiana are about 18 percentage points more likely to report never having student physical conflicts than in traditional public school. In eight out of 13 outcomes, there is a statistically significant private school advantage. In the other five, there was no advantage one way or the other. And we’re talking about things like verbal abuse and physical abuse, widespread disorder in the classroom, robbery, theft, possession of weapons, gang activity, physical conflicts, vandalism. It seems that the charter schools and private schools are doing a better job of guaranteeing the safety of their students. So, what’s going on in the traditional public school system?

Your book offers some insight into what sort of dysfunctions may account for widespread safety issues, even up to and including possibly school shootings. So, why don’t you just start by taking us back to Valentine’s Day of 2018, what happened in Parkland?

Max Eden: So, 2:01 p.m., the shooter stepped out of an Uber carrying a rifle bag. The campus security monitor sees him, thinks to himself, “That’s crazy boy. That’s the boy that we had the meeting about that he would shoot up the school.” Recognizes that he’s carrying a rifle bag, doesn’t want to approach him for fear that maybe he has a hand gun and maybe he’ll get shot, doesn’t want to call a Code Red, because if he calls a Code Red, and it’s not really that dangerous of a situation, maybe he’ll be the one to get in trouble.

Jason Bedrick: Now, just pause there for a second, what is a Code Red?

Max Eden: A Code Red is an indication that will be broadcast across the PA system to indicate to students that there’s an intruder on campus and that they should shelter in place, right? Get away from the windows, move to the side of the class, don’t make yourself visible, because we don’t know who is on campus and we don’t know why. So, in this case, we have a student coming on campus, who the security monitor recognizes as being a student who they had, as it turns out, literally frisked every single day for fear that he might be carrying a weapon to school. This is a little after he was withdrawn from the school. We’ll get to that.

But fully recognized the threat, did not call a Code Red for fear that he would be the one to get in trouble, lets him go into the school, starts to hear a loud percussion from the school, and still chooses to not call a Code Red for fear that he’ll be the one in trouble.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So, why would he get in trouble for calling a Code Red? You would think that you would want the security officer to call a Code Red. You’d think even he might be hailed as a hero for calling a Code Red, if he were to stop a school shooting. Why is he afraid of getting in trouble?

Max Eden: Well, if he were to stop a school shooting, he’d be a hero. If he were to call a Code Red and there weren’t a school shooting in progress, then he would have given everybody a hassle, and all of the parents would have been informed of what happened, and it would reflect very poorly on the school administrators. It would make it look as though their campus isn’t safe. In this one action, this kind of reductio ad absurdum of a campus security monitor, having full reason to believe that there’s a mass shooting in progress and choosing not to even report it, and not to take action about it for fear that he will get in trouble, that is kind of a microcosm of everything that had gone wrong in the school with the shooter, and the many years before this happened.

Jason Bedrick: So, because the monitor failed to take action, and your book details numerous other failures up to this point, as well, the shooter was able to make his way onto the campus. And I’m intentionally using the term the shooter to avoid using the student’s name, which is what co-author, Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow, who was tragically murdered in this school shooting, prefers not to glamorize the shooters in any way by repeating their names, which is so often what they want. So, we’ll try as best we can to avoid using his name in this podcast. He’s able to make it past the security guard, and then what?

Max Eden: Then he opens fire down the first floor hallway killing two students immediately. The other students within the classrooms don’t know what the sound is, couldn’t have taken cover quickly enough, and as he makes his way through the first floor hallway shoots into three different classrooms killing a total of nine students and two teachers on the first floor. He makes his way to the second floor, at which point in time the school resource officer, Scott Peterson, has been made aware of what is going on. He opts to stay outside the building from a safe distance, draws his weapon and rather takes cover behind a neighboring building as the shooter makes his way through the second floor.

Now, everybody in the second floor knew what the sound of gunshots sounded like because they were so close to it, but on the third floor, not every teacher recognized the sound of gunshots before a fire alarm had gone off. The fire alarm went off from the smoke from the killers rifle, it was said. It was supposed to have been replaced a few years back, however, there were delays that seemed to have somewhat suspicious circumstances around them. As he makes his way to the third floor, some students have taken cover, what they would have done if they had heard the Code Red, but other teachers told their students to make it into the hallway. So, the shooter, when he gets to the hallway, sees a few dozen students in front of him and shoots down the hallway.

A couple of the students try to take cover in the restroom. They go to the restroom to try to open the door, get in, get out of the line of fire, but the bathroom is locked. The bathroom is locked because the assistant principal decided that the best way to deter vaping, without having to actually enforce the rules and get suspensions on the books if it’s nicotine or possibly get arrests on the books if there’s THC in the e-cigarettes. They decided the best way to enforce the rules without having to enforce the rules was to lock most of the bathrooms and patrol the remaining ones. So, five students and one teacher were killed in the hallway on the first floor at which point in time, the shooter makes his way to the teachers’ lounge.

His intent had been to shoot down from the courtyard at students who were fleeing. He tries to shoot out the window, it doesn’t fully shatter. As he’s firing those shots, there are, at this point, eight Broward sheriff’s deputies, who have arrived on scene, none of whom approached the school building. Almost all of whom hear gunshots, none of whom approach the school building. Eventually, after about 10 full minutes, the shooter drops his rifle and exits as though he is a fleeing student. And so while on the one hand, this is the deadliest mass shooting in any American high School ever, on the other hand, it’s almost astonishing that only 17 were killed.
He had a building full of 800 students all to himself for 11 minutes. The only limiting factor here was him. It could have very easily been 170, because nobody stopped him then, and nobody stopped him ever before in the many, many opportunities that there would have been to get a grip on this kid and try to avert the tragedy that happened.

Jason Bedrick: Now, right after the attack, reporters interviewed classmates who said that they already knew, as soon as the bullets started flying, they knew who the attacker was without even seeing him. The students knew, the school officials should have known as well, and you already indicated that they did. He was a known quantity. So, if there were all these red flags, how did this happen?

Max Eden: Well, every red flag was ignored across almost every institution this individual encountered, right? I say in the book, there could have been a whole book on all the red flags missed through law enforcement, right? There were 45 police calls to the shooter’s home, and he was never arrested. Sheriff Scott Israel, the Broward sheriff’s office, said that, “We judge our success not by how many kids we put in jail, but by how many we keep out of jail.” In the community, for the police, the shooter was a great success in that regard, I suppose. He was evaluated for involuntary institutionalization several times, including three times during the week of his 18th birthday when he was being so threatening at home that his mother called.

He drank gasoline, he wrote “kill” on the top of the notebook. He was interviewed three times to be institutionalized that one week when they knew that he was hoping to buy a gun as soon as he was able, and they all declined. But of all the institutions around him, I put the most responsibility on the school district, because they knew full well who he was and what he was capable of. His entire life, he was practically jumping up and down waving his arms saying, “If you guys don’t watch out, I’m going to become a murderer.” And every opportunity that the school had to make a decision about him, they faced a pretty easy choice between doing the obviously responsible thing, and doing the thing that fit the policy incentives and pressures that were laid upon them. And they did the latter every single time perhaps thinking, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Jason Bedrick: I mean, I have a letter here that you publish in the book from one of his teachers to the school leadership, saying, “I feel strongly that this student is a danger to the students and faculty at the school. I do not feel that he understands the difference between his violent video games and reality. He is constantly showing aggressive behavior and poor judgment. His drawings in class show violent acts, people shooting at each other or creepy sexual pictures.” And I’m going to edit out some of the things that are said here. “He has pretended, etc., etc. He has been reprimanded on many occasions, verbally with referrals and so on, and continues to act in the same manner over and over again. I would like to see him sent to a facility that is more prepared and has the proper setting to deal with this type of child.”

He had actually physically assaulted other students. He would punch walls, throw stuff, scream, cuss at teachers. When told that he was a good kid by, I believe, a psychologist that was working with him, he would say things like, “I’m a bad kid. I want to kill.” After all of that, how did the school handle him?

Max Eden: So, here, Jason, we get into the third troublesome nexus between the perverse incentives that can occur with student disability policy and school discipline policy, right? I mean, a student who is this crazy, is categorized as having an emotional and behavioral disturbance is having a disability. But we also pressure our schools to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. And we pressure our schools to try to not disproportionately discipline students with disabilities.

Jason Bedrick: Just to be clear, that is, by and large, a good thing, right? There are students who have autism, students who have Down syndrome, right? We understand that they have special needs that have to be addressed, but we don’t want the old days where you just institutionalize any child that has some sort of mental or physical impairment. We want them to be in, as best we can, to mainstream them, or if they can’t be mainstreamed, we want them to be in an environment that is loving and caring and compassionate. Only a very small percentage of those students have these sorts of incredibly violent tendencies. But the question is, well, for those students that do seem to have a great propensity to harm themselves and others, how do we handle those students?

Max Eden: Precisely. I mean, to my mind, there’s, at the very least, a questionable categorization issue when it comes to labeling both students who may have a physical impairment, may have autism, may have Down syndrome, may have a learning disability, with students who are profoundly emotionally, behaviorally disturbed. Our schools should be able to distinguish between the students who need more support and the students who pose a danger to others. Unfortunately, certainly in Broward County and in many other schools, this distinction is not made. The quote that you were giving earlier, this is from his middle school, right?

During elementary school, he was never able to be in a normal classroom for more than half the time for a couple months on end. Before he would cause such profound disruption and chaos, they would have to remove him. So, his whole K–5, he was excluded from traditional classes, but by the time he reaches middle school, there were only two choices: either full inclusion at a traditional school, or this kind of supermax facility exclusion at a specialized school for a very small number of people with very extreme behavioral issues. He manages to make it through his sixth grade year reasonably well, but halfway through seventh grade, he kind of snaps from February of his seventh grade year to February of his eighth grade year.

His misbehavior is so severe that he is being suspended every other day. And so in middle school, as I learned the more I looked into it, the issue wasn’t that he wasn’t being disciplined. The issue was that literally everybody in that school knew that he shouldn’t be there, right? The students relayed stories that he had come up to them and offered to sell knives, that he had told them about animals that he mutilated. There are recordings, there are logs kept by teachers that show that on an almost daily basis, he was showing a fixation with guns and with killing and with death. They had to have a security escort accompany him at all times throughout the hallways. When that wasn’t enough, they ended up having his mom come to accompany him along with the security escort.

This behavior continued for about 10 school months at this level. It took five months before the school lifted a finger to start to try to move him to a more specialized setting. And once they did, it took another five months to get him there.

Jason Bedrick: And to be clear, during this whole period, OK, the school, they did suspend him a few times. They were taking some measures in his middle school to ensure the safety of other students, but these things are cries for help, right? He needs some very serious intensive assistance. Was he getting that?

Max Eden: No. And he attempted to commit suicide at one point. I mean, he ran out into the middle of a busy street and threw his arms up to stop traffic, and traffic stopped, and a teacher wrote this in as a referral. According to my reading of his educational records, the assistant principal rejected that referral and put one in of his own categorizing a suicide attempt as a minor disruption. If he had received this mental health help from outside the system, from the local mental health authorities, if the school had let that happen, the process of getting him to where he could be needed to be expedited, right? But this was in the middle school part of his life.

This was a case where policies that are intended to respect the rights of students with disabilities run totally roughshod over the rights of other students, and not really the best thing for the student either. I mean, they weren’t doing him any favors by keeping him there. There was one point of the logs by his teacher where she says that a student said to her that he keeps on asking him, “How am I still at this school?” I mean, even he couldn’t believe how long they were letting him behave the way that he was behaving at this school.

Jason Bedrick: So, why was he still at the school? I mean, you’ve alluded to certain policies, but make it clear. You’ve got the teachers in the building, don’t think he should be there, he himself is shocked that he’s there. It seems clear that this is a student who needs to be an environment, before he hurts himself or others, that is geared toward helping students that have real mental and emotional troubles like this, but yet he stays in the system, why?

Max Eden: Yeah. So, I can explain the first few months of inaction, that just looks like negligence to me. But when I showed all this to an expert, a long-time special education expert from within the Broward County School District, she said, “Yeah, it looks to me like the people at this school, once they started, did everything right. It’s just that the process takes several months. You have to do a psychosocial evaluation, a functional behavioral analysis, you have to implement a positive behavior intervention plan, you have to do a full psychological, you have to have a social worker interview all people concerned. And the process takes three months minimum, five months at a normal rate.”

And so all of these layers and layers of policies have been implemented, perhaps with good intentions, right? We want to respect the rights of students’ disabilities, try to keep them in the least restrictive environment possible, keep on including them, but there’s also these two extra layers to these disability policies that I think make them do quite frequently more harm than good, right? One is there’s a certain assumption within all of the paperwork that we need to make these decisions scientific, we need to make them somehow rigorous and immune from judgment. So, what one teacher at West Glades told me was, “If there’s one thing that gets fixed from this, what I want it to be is that we get rid of response to intervention,” which is another kind of particular standard paperwork, rigmarole thing that schools have introduced.

Because she said, “In the old days, teachers used to just be able to say to the principal, ‘I have a really bad feeling about this kid, let’s take a close look and figure out what needs to be done.’ But now it’s like you say this, but then they say, ‘OK, we’ll do this and wait three months for us to get it back, or I need you to document this every day.'” I mean, it reached a certain point of absurdity where teachers were sent his positive behavior intervention plan, which they were required to implement for at least six weeks before any further step can be taken about putting him into a more restricted environment. His positive behavior intervention plan differentiated what to do when the shooter commits low-level property destruction versus high-level property destruction.

And the instructions across the board were basically, “Give him a cool down pass, see if he cools down. If not, ask him nicely to cool down. If not, ignore him.” So, you have teachers, students, principals, who are basically being held hostage by all of these paperwork burdens that stem from policies that might have a good idea. But when you pressure a school district to educate students with even severe disabilities, behavioral disabilities in least restrictive environment, they’re more likely to err on the side of doing so rather than us because with a student like him, it’s just cheaper to keep him in a normal school. That’s what some of the teachers lamented.

This is an area in which policy and paperwork just so profoundly overrode human judgment that it basically kept everybody trapped in a state of fear for months and months on end waiting to make a decision that everybody knew was the right one.

Jason Bedrick: And eventually the decision was made and he was sent to an alternative facility, but he wasn’t there very long before he was back in a traditional high school. How did that happen? First of all, how did it work out for him being in that other environment? And then how did he get back into the local public school?

Max Eden: Yes. So, it didn’t work out very well at first, right? I mean, his first semester there, the spring of his eighth grade year, he continued to exhibit such disturbing misbehavior that his school therapist and the school psychiatrist wrote a letter to his private psychiatrist at the end of the year basically saying, “We’re scared of this kid. He confided in us that he dreams of killing and being covered in blood. He has extreme mood swings he’s paranoid, he commits substantial property destruction at his house. We tried to implement a safety plan that included the removal of all sharp objects from the house, but he also has this hatchet and the mom has not been able to locate this hatchet, and you need to take a very close look at him, because he doesn’t seem to be responding to medications.” Right?

So, this is an extremely rare thing for school officials to do from everything that I’ve been told. That was the end of his eighth grade year. The beginning of his ninth grade year is rough, but come October, he seems to have settled down a little bit. The therapist notes reflect that his behavior had improved. He was acting out less frequently. He seemed to be doing pretty well for a few months, and after that the school thought, “OK, well, he’s doing well, let’s put him into a traditional school. Let’s try him out for two classes at the beginning of the next year.” There are so many insane things about this, Jason, that it’s hard to pick what’s the most insane.

But maybe the most insane is that he tells his school psychiatrist that he wants to go to a normal school, and expresses the desire to join JROTC, Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, and the psychiatrist says in her notes, “Wants to join JROTC, not advised. Discuss safety of himself and others.”

Jason Bedrick: Right. Now, these JROTC students, to be clear, use firearms and train with firearms.

Max Eden: Yes. I mean, they took a student whose record could not possibly have been clear that he was fixated with guns, could not tell the difference between video games and reality, was obsessed with wars and violent imagery, and thought, “OK, well, he likes guns, so when we try to put him into a traditional school, let’s get him in a class where he can exercise his interest.” So, they put him into two classes in Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the fall of his 10th grade year, one of them being JROTC. And theoretically, he is to be monitored both in his specialized school at Cross Creek and in Marjory Stoneman Douglas. In reality, the special ed specialist at Marjory Stoneman Douglas goes on maternity leave halfway through, and from everything I can tell, for the second half of the first semester, he is effectively unmonitored within Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

So, it’s possible that he behaved himself well enough during the process, but if he didn’t, there was nobody watching him. And another really remarkable thing is he had this functional behavioral analysis in middle school that just showed log, after log, after log, statement, after statement, after statement, by teachers showing how dangerous he was. His individualized education plan document, that on three separate occasions, educators refer to his obsession with guns or war or terrorism or killing. The assistant principal at Marjory Stoneman Douglas for special ed students never read those documents. According to a special ed support facilitator, when she did for the first time in November that year, she went to the assistant principal and said, “This kid is too dangerous. He can’t be at that school. This is really bad. We’re about to make a huge mistake and put kids at risk.”

According to this support facilitator, the assistant principal told her basically, “Stay in your lane, these are not your decisions to make.” And so he enters Marjory Stoneman Douglas full time, the second semester of his sophomore year. And according to students, his behavior was pretty troubling there, too. It wasn’t quite as much of a screaming terror as he had been at middle school, but I talked to one student, Dana Craig, who told us that he had threatened to kill her and that she wrote a statement to the school administrators saying, “He threatened to kill me on Instagram. I can show you the documents, please help.” And that nothing happened.

A couple of weeks after he gets to the school, a mom calls the Broward sheriff’s office and says, “My kids saw that the future shooter posted on Instagram a picture of an AR-15 and said, ‘I’m going to get this gun and shoot up the school.'” And the Broward sheriff’s officer told her that that was his right out of the First Amendment, passed the word along, according to his logs, to the school resource officer from which nothing happened.

Jason Bedrick: Which to be clear, even for First Amendment absolutists, a specific threat of violence is not actually covered by the First Amendment.

Max Eden: Oh, no, absolutely not. This was pure negligence on the part of the officer. But also you have to remember, this officer in the Broward sheriff’s office is operating under an incentive to not arrest students, to not arrest juveniles.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So, that’s what I want to get into, because what’s the primary function of the police? It’s to protect people. What’s the primary function of the school security officers? It’s to protect these kids. The administration wants a well-run school. The teachers want their classrooms not to be terribly disrupted, likewise for the other students. It seems to be in everybody’s interest to take action here when there are so many red flags of danger, and yet, those who have the power to do something don’t. There are many teachers and whatnot that do act within their power. They go to the administrators that are above them and ask for actions to be taken, and yet, at the level of the assistant principal and the principal and even the superintendent, they’re not taking these actions.

What is it about public policy that changed their incentives so that they acted seemingly against what would be their own natural self-interest?

Max Eden: Yeah. I mean, it would seem to be in their interest to have a school that is safe, that has no problems, but public policy has pressured multiple institutions, schools especially, to look safe and look as though they have no problems. So, I think it might be worth starting with the Promise Program that became kind of a focal point for this and expanding out from there to explain the whole gestalt of it, Jason. In the first few weeks after the shooting, when questions were raised about whether or not the school districts diversionary program, the Promise Program, which chose to not arrest students for a select number of misdemeanors, but rather to send them to an offsite center for a few days to try to, in theory at least, rehabilitate them.

Attention focused on that, and the superintendent said, “This has nothing to do with the Promise Program. This is fake news. The shooter was never in the Promise Program nor was he referred to the Promise Program while in high school.” We might circle back to that deception later, as it turns out, he was referred to it once while in middle school. But the reason why Broward launched the Promise Program was, at least in theory, this effort to fight the school-to-prison pipeline, right? We see that students who get suspended or expelled or arrested in school also tend to have worse outcomes later on. We see that there are racial disparities, disparities by disability in these disciplinary indicators.

Policymakers don’t trust teachers. They blame teachers for these problems. They basically insinuate or accuse teachers of racism for the racial disparities and ableism for the disability disparities, and then they try to force these numbers down. When it comes to the Promise Program, it succeeded in reducing arrests by about 70-75 percent, but it did so by telling school administrators and school resource officers that a student is basically not allowed to talk to a school resource officer for the first four misdemeanors that he commits in a year, and this resets after every year.

Jason Bedrick: So, in other words, you’re putting policies in place to address the legitimate concern that there’s this, as you call it, “school-to-prison pipeline,” and so we need to lower suspensions. Now, there’s two ways of doing that. One way is to actually implement programs and policies that reduce the number of misdemeanors that children are committing. The other is just to turn a blind eye when they’re committing misdemeanors, right? Both of them on paper are going to look the same, but one of them is a heck of a lot easier to do, so they choose the easy way, which is just to turn a blind eye. Not to actually intervene in a way that might reduce the propensity to commit these offenses. Is that right?

Max Eden: Yeah, correct. I mean, on the criminal side, they let students commit up to four misdemeanors a year before there was even a requirement that they speak with the school resource officer. Assistant principals and principals were trained by the central office lawyer, that if a police officer wanted to come on campus to arrest a student who had committed a crime off campus, even a serious crime, that they were to tell the police officer, “You may not come on campus, and I will not even tell you whether or not the student is on campus.” In large part, I believe, because they wanted to get the arrest numbers down, as they did. And a similar dynamic unfolds for the lower level stuff, right?

I mean, it’s very easy to get suspensions down by not suspending kids, and teachers that I spoke to, students that I spoke to, complained of this culture of leniency where students can basically do almost whatever they want with impunity, knowing that there won’t be any consequences. I mean, there was just a poll released in late July, early August of Broward teachers, commissioned by the Broward Teachers Union that found that 13 percent of Broward teachers have been assaulted, which is a very high number. And that only 38 percent of teachers believe that a student who assaults them would be suspended. So, when almost two-thirds of teachers think that a student can assault them effectively with impunity, there’s clearly something going wrong in the way that the school is handling safety issues.

But it looks great on paper, right? We got disciplinary incidents down by 40 percent, we got suspensions down by 60 percent, we got arrests down by 70 percent, and we are fighting the school-to-prison pipeline. Nevermind that we’re sending a signal to misbehaving kids that they can get away with a whole lot, and we’re really destabilizing and endangering students and teachers, because we’re letting all these things go under the rug. So, whereas a lot of attention focused on the Promise Program in particular in the wake of the tragedy, my ultimate assessment was that while the shooter did commit crimes for which he should have been arrested in school, a bigger part of what went wrong is the lower level stuff just wasn’t documented while he was in high school, right?

He had 125 total disciplinary incidents K–12, only five of which were in his high school. This is a kid who, at a certain point, they tell him, “You can’t bring a backpack to school.” And at a certain point they start to frisk him every single day to search for a weapon, and yet on paper, his disciplinary record in high school looks totally unremarkable. On one hand, people will say, “Well, being suspended wouldn’t have helped this kid.” It absolutely would not have helped this kid, but what would have helped him is to have been sent back to the specialized school that he truly should have never left in the first place, but it was such a paperwork hassle to do it. The incentives against reporting behavioral infractions were so strong that his misbehavior at Stoneman Douglas went largely under-recorded, and so ultimately, they kind of kicked him out the back door.

Jason Bedrick: Now, you point out, I mean, there’s one example of where the school looks great on paper, but the statistics are juked in such a way that it really is masking that the school is getting worse. And the school district brags that 90 percent of Promise kids don’t go to Promise twice in the same year for the same infraction. And just like the previous statement by the superintendent, you have to parse every single phrase because it’s very lawyerly, it’s there for a reason. If they don’t go to Promise twice in the same year for the same infraction, that means they might be going to Promise multiple times for different infractions, or they could be going in multiple years for the same infraction, and you have 13 different infractions.

So, that you point out, the way they calculate it, a student could be sent to Promise 52 times in high school, but have a perfect record on paper because they never went twice in the same year for the same infraction. So, if a student were to, let’s say, commit three infractions at once, we might put down one infraction and send him to Promise, he comes back, and he does something, while we’re just going to put down one of the other infractions. And this is one way that you’re able to hide what’s really going on, so you look great on paper, even though things aren’t going so well in the classroom, as demonstrated by these surveys of teachers that show that they don’t feel particularly safe, that some of them have been assaulted and that they don’t have any faith that the system is going to address these students properly when they’re committing violent assaults.

Max Eden: Yeah. I mean, on paper, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was just about the safest school in South Florida, right? According to official state statistics there, in the years in which the shooter was enrolled, there was no bullying, there was no assaults, there was no trespassing, there was no battery. It looked pretty perfect on paper. The only problem is that those numbers were fake. But it’s the numbers, at the end of the day, that are the easiest thing to default to. And when public school system is pressured from on high to look good, to fix the numbers in order to satisfy the whims of distant bureaucrats who have very particular ideas about social justice, then the way that that ends up actually getting implemented is just to systematically have a higher tolerance for misbehavior or to sweep things under the rug.

There was a national poll by the Fordham Institute recently, in which about 70 percent of teachers who said that suspensions had gone down in their school, that the suspensions had gone down at least somewhat because of a higher tolerance for misbehavior. And about 45 percent of teachers said suspensions had gone down because of explicit under-reporting. Kids were getting suspended and nothing was actually being recorded. So, this goes back to what you opened with, Jason, which is, what are the things about the public schools that are different from charter schools or different from private schools that make it this way?

And a whole lot of it is this pressure in public schools, in public systems, where teachers know what needs to be done, but they report to administrators and administrators might know the right thing to do, but they were report to the district superintendents. And even if the superintendent wants to do the right thing, he reports to state level bureaucrats, and ultimately, works in the shadow of federal bureaucrats as well as many advocacy organizations that want to cajole and litigate their way to different apparent outcome. And so you have a whole system where the governing principle becomes, “How do we look good on paper?” Rather than, “How do we have a good classroom environment, a stable learning environment, a cohesive, well cultured school?”

You don’t have that at charter schools and at private schools because they’re not subject to the same kind of tyranny of metrics.

Jason Bedrick: Right. In those schools, they depend on parents opting in to their schools. And so if they were to announce publicly statistics showing, “Well, we’ve got very low suspension rates, yada, yada,” but there are kids coming home from school every day saying, “There’s problems. This is something that’s going on with this kid in my classroom.” There’s a strong incentive for those parents to either complain, or if their complaints are not heard, to leave. In the district school system, you have a captive audience, especially in lower-income areas. Broward County actually happens to be a higher-income area, but in lower-income areas in particular, you have a captive audience. And so the incentive structure is quite different.

Now, in terms of these policies, though, that you’re discussing, you catalog a number of these policies in Broward County that you think contributed to this tragedy happening. Are these policies unique to that school system or should parents in other parts of the country be concerned that there are similar policies in their school systems as well?

Max Eden: Parents should be very, very concerned, right? I mean, these policies were pioneered in Broward. The Broad Foundation credits Superintendent Runcie as being one of the architects. The Obama administration gave him and Broward a lot of credit at the national level. But basically, this drive to fight the so-called school- to-prison pipeline by lowering suspensions, expulsions and arrests started in Broward before a lot of other places. But in January of 2014, Arne Duncan, the Federal Department of Education, issued what’s called a Dear Colleague Letter to schools, which basically told them, “If you have disparate rates of discipline, if students of different races or by ability are being discipled at different rates, we’re going to presume that this constitutes discrimination and a violation of the Civil Rights Act. And we might investigate you. If we investigate you, basically, we are going to force you to change your policies at the end of the day anyway.”

And so, these investigations prompted hundreds of schools serving millions of students across the country directly to change their policies. Hundreds more school districts serving many millions more students, saw the writing on the wall or just started to think that this was the right thing to do, because it comes with such a nice positive social justice narrative, right? “Fight the school-to-prison pipeline, lower suspensions and expulsions and arrests.” According to some federal data that was just released in late July, about 45% percent of schools implement restorative justice, which is kind of a catch all term that comes along with this drive to lower suspensions, expulsion and arrests.

Several states have taken it on almost as a state level initiative—Illinois, California, Oregon, Maryland. So, these policy pressures that affected the actions of school administrators within Broward have become kind of de rigueur at schools across the country. I could almost venture to say most schools at this point.

Jason Bedrick: So, what should the takeaways be for policymakers and for parents who read your book?

Max Eden: For parents, my main takeaway would be talk to your teachers and ask them what’s going on, and talk to them off the record, right? Because teachers are the ones who are on the front lines and can tell you what’s really going on. One of the scarier things in this Broward County survey which is replicated in many other surveys that I’ve seen, several of the surveys, is teachers saying things like, “Kids can assault me or my colleagues and nothing is done about it.” And this can only happen because the connection between the school and parents is kind of separated by the layers of bureaucracy and the layers of possible retaliation.

I would also tell parents and policymakers, by all means, try to talk to your local school board, urge them to change their policies, ask them what’s really going on and get involved. But I also think school choice is something that almost has to be a big part of the picture. I mean, my co-author, Andy, who lost his daughter will basically say, “If I had any idea of what was actually going on in my public school, I would have never sent her there.” He would go so far as to say, “You can’t send your kid to a public school unless you know what the policies are. You got to do private, you got to do charter, you got to do homeschool, but you can’t send your kid to a public school if there’s this stuff going on.”

At the very least, I think one thing that I hope can make a difference is policies that advance school choice based on a lack of school safety, right? There’s one kind of telling story from Marjory Stoneman Douglas where a student went to assistant principal regarding the shooter, said, “He told me that he’s crazy and he likes to cause pain and he has two shotguns at his house, and I’ve seen him looking at weapons online at his computer.” And the assistant principal said, “OK, well, Google ‘autism’ and have a nice day.” Another parent came forward and said, “I went to the principal a day after this, and I raised my concerns about the student, and the principal said, ‘Well, if you don’t like the way that I run the school, you can withdraw your kid.'”

Now, that’s the incentive that school administrators face. They face an incentive to not show problems. But if parents could come to them and have a very credible threat of leaving the school unless their kid is kept safe, maybe that can create this pressure the other way. That school administrators actually have a reason and a more compelling reason from a bureaucratic standpoint, in addition to a human standpoint, to make sure they take the actions they need to, to keep their kids safe and to keep the school environment orderly.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Max Eden. He’s the co-author, with Andrew Pollack, of Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created The Parkland Shooter and Endanger America Students. Max, thank you for coming on.

Max Eden: Thank you, Jason.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is our Big Ideas series. If you have any new ideas for books or essays that we should discuss with the authors, please email those ideas to us at media@edchoice.org. You can subscribe to this podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. Follow us on social media @edchoice and sign up for email on our website, edchoice.org. Thanks for tuning in. We’ll catch you next time.