A Search for Answers A Search for Blame
Max Eden didn’t even want to read about Parkland. He saw the news on Valentine’s Day, after a dinner date with his girlfriend at a little French place in Washington, D.C., taking an Uber home. There was the gut-punch—“oh shit, another school shooting”—then the queasy afterthought that none of this hits as hard as it used to. He knew what would follow. For a few angry weeks, Democrats would demand gun control and Republicans would call for arming teachers. He decided he’d sit it out this time, ignore the news as much as possible. And for a few days he did, until a journalist tweeted that the shooter’s school record proved a point that Eden had been making for much of his career.
At 30 years old, Eden has a neat beard, a balding head that he’s resigned himself to buzzing short and a quick, sometimes nervous intelligence. A Yale graduate, he is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that focuses on economic and urban policy issues. For years, the institute has produced arguments about how liberal policies intended to help minorities actually hurt them. It underwrote the early welfare reform work of contrarian sociologist Charles Murray, whose book, “The Bell Curve,” infamously argued that there are racial differences in intelligence. Its senior fellow George Kelling helped advance the theory of “broken windows” policing, which posits that crackdowns on petty quality-of-life offenses ultimately reduce major crimes. More recently, fellow Heather Mac Donald has regularly appeared on Fox News to discuss the “Ferguson effect”—her argument that the Black Lives Matter movement has caused police to become less proactive, fueling urban crime.
Eden’s portfolio was lower-profile. His speciality was education, which in conservative policy circles usually meant critiquing liberal reforms for focusing on underprivileged children at the expense of their more fortunate peers. (In 2016, he wrote an article to this effect titled “#AllKidsMatter.”) Eden’s mother had been a public school teacher in Cleveland, and her complaints made the work personal.
Over the previous two years, Eden had focused on school discipline. The Obama administration had embarked on a major effort to address the “school-to-prison pipeline”—the glaring racial disparity in school suspensions and expulsions, which is a major contributor to an even more glaring racial disparity in America’s prisons. Eden believed the reforms had plunged schools like his mother’s into chaos and saw the reformers themselves as members of a “social justice industrial complex.” “As more money flows to ‘woke’ conferences and training programs,” he would write, “school district leaders have increasingly learned that the fastest path to career advancement is to produce fake statistical progress for minority students while passionately decrying privilege and institutional racism.”
Eden tracked the news for violent incidents—like a 2017 high school stabbing in the Bronx—at schools that had adopted the new approach. Still, compared to other education debates that riled up conservatives, such as campus sexual assault or bathroom access for transgender students, discipline reform never really caught on. There was, Eden said, no natural Republican “political constituency” for his issue.
Until a few days after Parkland, when the journalist’s tweet started him thinking. The shooting had occurred at the most elite public school in one of the most affluent suburbs in Broward County, and Eden typically focused on low-income, urban, majority-minority schools. But then he noticed what kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were saying about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old former MSD student charged with killing 17 students and staff and injuring 17 more. In TV interviews and on social media, the students insisted they’d repeatedly warned local authorities that Cruz was obsessed with guns. A couple of days after the massacre, the FBI acknowledged it had failed to act on two tips. It would emerge that Cruz had repeated interactions with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office as well. Eden wondered, he told me, whether the shooting was connected to Broward’s reputation as “ground zero” for a policy he characterized as “try to arrest as few students as possible.”
In 2013, Broward had launched an arrest- and suspension-diversion program called PROMISE that became a national model for reformers. Many believed it had even helped inspire the Obama administration’s own efforts. And when Eden tangled with reform advocates online, asking them to show him where the new policies were working, they always pointed to Broward.
In the days after the shooting, Parkland students led the country in the most forceful call for gun reform in recent memory, and plenty of conservatives were looking to place the blame on anything other than lax gun laws. The first to land on PROMISE was Jack Cashill, the conspiracy-minded author of a book about “the railroading of George Zimmerman.” Cashill had long argued that Trayvon Martin, the black teenager whom Zimmerman shot and killed in 2012, was in fact a budding criminal whose aptitude for “street fighting, drugs, guns, burglary and mixed martial arts” had been obscured because his Florida school district participated in a program to reduce student arrests. Now, Cashill theorized that Broward had similarly excused Cruz because, although he is white, his name made him “a statistical Hispanic.” The next day, a right-wing blog posted a series of tweets arguing that Cruz had benefited from “the Trayvon Martin standard.” The thread was shared almost 12,000 times, and the theory quickly spread from Infowars to Rush Limbaugh to Breitbart to Fox News, until Ann Coulter was describing PROMISE as “the school to mass murder pipeline.”
But it was Eden, whose work had been cited in the Senate, who made the argument influential.
And then, in April, he traveled to Parkland. Eden hoped to write an article about a failed policy—he wasn’t planning to get personally involved. But there were some in Parkland who found his arguments persuasive. The father of one slain MSD senior sought Eden out and declared that his work would be central to his search for “justice for my daughter’s murder.” It was the start of an unlikely partnership that would entangle a grieving community in one of the ugliest political fights that people in Broward could remember.
Twenty years ago, the Columbine school shooting was the deadliest of its kind in U.S. history. As with the shooting in Parkland, no major gun reforms followed. And yet Columbine did prompt profound change of another, less obvious kind, as schools all over the country overhauled their safety procedures. In 1997, just 10 percent of public schools had campus-based police, known as school resource officers or SROs. By 2014, it was 30 percent. Between 1996 and 2008, the number of school districts that had their own police departments more than doubled.
The purpose of these new practices was to protect students from violence. But what happened instead was the widespread criminalization of bad behavior. Before Columbine, some 79 percent of schools had zero tolerance policies for violence, according to the Department of Education; a federal law mandated a year’s suspension for bringing a gun on campus. After the shooting, schools rushed to expand these policies to lesser forms of misconduct. What was seen as a “weapon” expanded to the point of absurdity. Students were suspended or expelled for bringing butter knives in their lunchboxes, aiming “finger guns” or biting a Pop-Tart into what teachers interpreted as the shape of a gun. Arrest rates skyrocketed for vaguely defined offenses like “disruption.” (These arrests often escalated from behavior as minor as throwing pencils in class or running in halls.) In public schools with SROs, students were five times more likely to be arrested for “disorderly conduct” than at schools without them. Researchers eventually deemed that the new zero tolerance rules didn’t actually increase school safety. Meanwhile, even as juvenile crime rates steadily decreased after their 1994 peak, suspensions kept rising.
The new precautions coincided with a heightened suspicion of teenagers in the mid-’90s, a fear that was often racialized. And it was students of color—especially black students, and especially black boys—who bore the brunt of the post-Columbine emphasis on school security. Black students account for around 15 percent of the public school population but around a third of school-based arrests. Even as preschoolers, black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended as their white peers, and twice as likely to be arrested at school, according to The Sentencing Project. In recent years, security cameras and student cellphones have captured shocking footage of black children on campus being manhandled like dangerous criminals—a teenage girl violently flipped over and thrown across the room by an SRO; a kindergartner handcuffed for a temper tantrum.
Russell Skiba, a professor emeritus at Indiana University and a leading researcher on disparate discipline, noted that over 20 years, all but a handful of studies have found that the reason for the discrepancy isn't that black children are misbehaving at higher rates. Rather, black students are punished more for offenses that rely on subjective assessment, such as “disruptive behavior” or “defiance.” White students, meanwhile, are more often punished for objective offenses that can’t be ignored, like smoking or vandalism. Black students are also 31 percent more likely to receive discretionary suspensions, according to the Justice Center—that is, not for violations that would automatically mandate it.
Many researchers largely attribute the problem to implicit bias: teachers, administrators and SROs judging the same behavior differently depending on the race of the child. One superintendent in Minnesota examined discipline referrals for her district’s kindergartens and found that when white kids misbehaved, teachers described them as high-strung or frustrated—unable to “use his words”—while black classmates were labeled unmanageable or violent.
These experiences can alter the course of a student’s life. According to an authoritative 2011 study in Texas, children who are suspended are twice as likely as similar peers to drop out and 11 times more likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system. Other studies have found those who drop out are three times more likely to end up incarcerated.
Broward was as good an example as any of this phenomenon. In 2011, the county had the most school arrests in Florida. As the nation’s sixth-largest district, this was perhaps not surprising—but 71 percent of those arrests were for misdemeanors like graffiti or possessing marijuana. According to the local NAACP, black students in Broward were two and a half times more likely than white students to be suspended, expelled and arrested. Their achievement gap was also stark. In 2011, only 57 percent of the district’s black male students graduated; several years earlier, the graduation rate for that group had been the third-worst in the country among districts with a large black population.
Robert Runcie became Broward’s first permanent black superintendent in 2011. He wasn’t a career educator. A tall, wiry, driven man with a thin mustache, he’d grown up in a cinder-block house in Jamaica and emigrated with his working-class family to the U.S. when he was 6. He studied economics at Harvard and Northwestern and founded a technology consulting firm. In 2003, his college friend Arne Duncan, then the CEO of Chicago’s public schools, asked him to run the district’s data systems. There, he helped to work on an algorithm project to determine which students were at greatest risk of being harmed by gang violence.
After his arrival in Broward, Runcie was contacted by a small core of leaders, convened by the local NAACP, that had been trying to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Runcie “was a data geek,” said Gordon Weekes, an attorney in Broward’s public defender’s office. “He said, ‘Whatever the data shows, it shows.’” When the data demonstrated that there were indeed significant racial disparities at work, the group assembled a coalition, joined by Runcie and various local agencies, including law enforcement, to review the district’s policies.
The team was particularly intrigued by a model developed in the poorest school district in metro Atlanta. Over a 10-year span, the arrival of police in Clayton County schools had led to a 1,200 percent increase in school-based arrests, overwhelmingly for petty offenses. Black students were 12 times more likely than white ones to be arrested. Graduation rates fell to an all-time low and crime in the county increased. As Clayton Juvenile Judge Steve Teske explained, once children are pulled into the system, they begin to identify as delinquents and are desensitized to the threat of jail. Arrest a student for low-level misbehavior, Teske has said, and “you might as well be sending him to prison one day.”
In 2004, Teske brokered a partnership between school and law enforcement in which arrests would be diverted for four minor offenses—fights, disorderly conduct, disruption and failure to follow police instructions. This led to a 70 percent drop in arrests and rising graduation rates. Georgia’s then-Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican and former juvenile judge, described Teske’s work as “revolutionary.”
In 2013, Broward’s team expanded “the Teske model” into a program they called PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support and Education). It covered 13 common types of misbehavior, including alcohol and marijuana possession, vandalism and “minor fighting.” Instead of being arrested for those offenses, students could be sent to one of the district’s alternative schools, Pine Ridge Education Center, for classes, counseling and a wide range of social services to address the underlying causes of misbehavior. Over the next four years, Broward’s school arrests fell 63 percent. An independent assessment by Nova Southeastern University, which offers counseling services in partnership with PROMISE, found that same-year recidivism dropped from 50 percent to 8 percent. The black male graduation rate, meanwhile, increased significantly. Runcie and his Executive Director of Student Support Initiatives, Michaelle “Mickey” Pope, were inundated with calls for advice from educators around the country. Runcie would eventually be invited to a White House panel that recognized Broward as leading the nation in discipline reforms.
In January 2014, all public K-12 schools received a “Dear Colleague” letter from the departments of Justice and Education (the latter then led by Arne Duncan). Under the Civil Rights Act, the letter said, federally funded entities could not penalize students of one race disproportionately. Any “disparate impact” could be evidence of discrimination, even if policies were race-neutral on their face. The letter signaled that the education department’s Office of Civil Rights would investigate potential violations. The American Civil Liberties Union described the move as “groundbreaking”; dozens of states and school districts subsequently instituted reforms.
Conservative critics like Eden objected on multiple fronts.
And then there were those who believed that minorities simply misbehave more often, as a result of poverty or single-parent homes. Eden’s Manhattan Institute colleague, Heather Mac Donald—whose books include “The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture”—wrote in City Journal, “Given what we know about the breakdown of family socialization in the black community, it is wholly consistent that black students would be more prone to insubordination and classroom disruption.”
But mostly, conservatives complained that the letter forced schools into a dangerous numbers game. Eden characterized it this way: If three black students and one white student were suspended for swearing at a teacher, the school could be violating the guidance by producing a disparate outcome. As a result, he said, schools are compelled to “juke the stats”—borrowing the term from “The Wire,” a show that delivered a devastating indictment of broken windows policing and traditional disciplinary approaches in poor urban schools.
To support his argument, Eden collected school surveys administered by officials or teachers unions. He found more than 10 large districts where teachers said discipline reform wasn’t working. In Oklahoma City, one teacher reported that the principal had said suspensions were no longer mandatory unless there was an incident involving blood. In other districts, some teachers reported feeling so distraught—by both the policy and the implication that they were racist if they objected to it—that they’d considered leaving the profession altogether.
Eden’s most recognized work is a 2017 report claiming that after New York City enacted reforms, at 38 percent of schools an increased share of teachers said order and discipline had grown worse. However, education policy writer RiShawn Biddle took issue with the methodology. Biddle noted the raw survey data showed that, district wide, the proportion of teachers who thought order and discipline had been maintained actually remained steady, at 80 percent. (Eden also found that at 44 percent of schools, more students reported fighting than before.) Beyond that, Biddle said, there are inherent limitations to using survey responses as an objective measure of safety. He pointed to a 2016 study that found white teachers have lower expectations of their black students than do black teachers, as well as a 2015 study showing that black children are suspended less often when taught by black teachers. “Teachers, students, parents all have biases,” Biddle said. “You’re dealing with perception, and for many people, perception is reality.”
After President Donald Trump was elected, Eden and other reform opponents had the ear of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Four months into the new administration, Eden wrote an op-ed urging DeVos to rescind the Obama letter. In the fall of 2017, a Federalist Society report accused reformers of transforming schools into “menacing places where gangs of out-of-control teens prowl the halls.” Soon afterward, DeVos hired the study’s co-author. In September, DeVos, who’d already withdrawn one Obama guidance concerning the rights of transgender students, announced she was pulling a second, concerning campus sexual assault. Conservatives clamored for her to keep going, with one think tank cheering, “Two Down, One to Go.”
On April 10, 2018, at a meeting of the Broward County School Board, a slight, skinny kid walked up to the microphone and confidently announced that he’d completed an investigation into “the conduct of the school board and superintendent prior to the shooting at Stoneman.” Kenneth “Kenny” Preston was a 19-year-old home-schooled student in khaki pants and a dark blazer with a near-pompadour of black hair. He projected the same forceful, hyperarticulate poise that had propelled the MSD student activists into the spotlight nearly two months before, although he was at the meeting to make a very different point.
Preston’s investigation had begun as a report for an online journalism course and it was now more than 3,000 words long. He focused on two charges. First, that Runcie had spent only 5 percent of a $100 million bond dedicated to safety improvements. (The district said far more than 5 percent had been allocated.) Second, that PROMISE and its champions had tied the hands of SROs, obscured the number of campus crimes and allowed more than 1,000 incarcerated students to re-enroll in district schools.
Although conservative media treated the report as the work of an intrepid wunderkind, it wasn’t entirely a solo project. After the shooting at MSD, Preston had been incensed to see Runcie on television calling for “sensible gun control” before the dead had even been buried. After coming across Max Eden’s work online, he messaged him on Facebook to ask for help refining his presentation. “Our goal was to make [Runcie] the focus,” Preston told me—referring to what was already a small band of critics of the school district.
Among them was Andrew Pollack, who had become what the Miami New Times would call “the Parkland massacre’s conservative face.” On February 14, Pollack’s daughter, Meadow, an MSD senior, had been shot nine times. The final five shots came as she attempted to cover the body of a schoolmate, Cara Loughran, who died when the bullets passed through Meadow’s body into her own. On the day of the shooting, Pollack had been on a Valentine’s Day bike ride with his wife in the Everglades. When they heard of the shooting, they sped back to the city and raced from hospital to hospital, looking for Meadow. At one point, they would later discover, they’d been driving behind the ambulance that was transporting Nikolas Cruz. That unspeakable day, Pollack had been photographed in a hospital parking lot, wearing a Trump 2020 T-shirt and holding up his phone to show a picture of Meadow beaming in a black strapless dress.
A week later, Pollack stood up in a televised meeting at the White House, his tan face drawn, his two sons gripping his shoulders. He was “pissed,” he said. He couldn’t get on a plane with bottled water, “but some animal can walk into a school and shoot our children.” Pollack contended that gun control was a pipe dream and the country needed to unite around school safety solutions instead. In short order, he became a Fox News regular.
A 53-year-old transplant from New York, who’d run a scrap metal dealership before getting into real estate, Pollack, with his salt-and-pepper buzz cut, has retained an accent and an attitude friends affectionately described as “Long Island redneck.” His 21-year-old son, Hunter, called him “a real tough guy.” Pollack called himself a business guy or a people guy or just a “real guy”—someone who, he frequently said, “barely graduated high school” but had common sense.
In his first Fox News appearance, four days after the White House meeting, Pollack still looked shellshocked. He'd always seen Meadow, whom he'd named after Meadow Soprano, as the toughest of his three children, the one who seemed most like himself. When the host asked what he thought of the calls for gun control, Pollack accused him of “polarizing this event.” “You didn’t say one thing about fixing it!” he exclaimed. For Pollack, to “fix it”—a phrase he’d make his signature hashtag—meant fortifying schools like courthouses or airports.
In subsequent Fox appearances, Pollack liked to observe that his opponents were driven by an agenda—trying to politicize his daughter’s death—but he was not for any party except the party of your kids coming home after school. Though he said he’d never tied a tie in his life before the shooting, he now wore suits almost daily for interviews or meetings with state legislators, governors, members of Congress, President Trump and Secretary DeVos. His social media following swelled to more than 120,000 people. His dog Sonny became a repeat attraction on the Twitter account “Conservative Pets.”
Sometimes, Pollack marveled at the man he’d become. His daughter’s murder had empowered him. “I could walk through flames right now,” he said in that first interview on Fox. He sometimes referred to himself as “Mr. Pollack,” as in, “Nobody’s even looking at this except Mr. Pollack.” He almost always called his daughter’s killer by his inmate number, 18-1958.
Despite his growing profile, Pollack read every message he received, afraid of missing a vital clue in his mission to expose what had gone wrong. So when Kenny Preston reached out to families of MSD victims about his report, Pollack rallied other parents to sign a letter to the school district, demanding answers.
Back in Washington, Eden was also impressed by Preston’s tenacity. Preston had challenged the school board even after a two-hour meeting with Runcie, three victims’ families and 10 district officials, in what Preston saw as an attempt to “reeducate” him. “He’s my fucking American hero,” Eden told me. He viewed the school district’s reaction as a sign that it had something to hide and decided to go to Parkland himself, to see what he could find out.
There, Eden met with 15-year-old Anthony Borges, who’d been shot five times while holding a classroom door closed to protect other kids. His family had sued the district, charging that PROMISE was part of a lenient “atmosphere of the whole school.” Borges had only recently been released from the hospital when Eden visited him in his bedroom. He had fresh surgical incisions healing on his wiry torso and a colostomy bag sticking out the side of his stomach.
Eden hadn’t planned to talk to Pollack, who was so frequently on television, “pointing every finger at everything that was popping up.” Eden figured if he knew anything about PROMISE, he’d have said so, loudly. Plus, even from a distance, Pollack seemed “really intense.”
But then Pollack invited Eden to his Spanish-tiled ranch house in Coral Springs. Pollack had joined the newly established Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was undertaking an exhaustive inquiry into the tragedy, and he wanted advice. Eden suggested he find out about Cruz’s disciplinary record—whether Cruz had committed any crimes he wasn’t arrested for. His contention was that if Cruz had been arrested at school, a criminal record could have prevented him from buying a gun. Pollack said he was told that the commission wasn’t sure whether the district had yet shared all the relevant records. He, too, sensed a cover-up. (The commission would later confirm the district had cooperated fully in sharing information.) Pollack made Eden an offer: If Eden would help him with an “independent investigation,” Pollack would introduce him to everyone he could find, put him up in his house for free, even reimburse his flights.
Between April and September of 2018, Eden came down to Broward every several weeks. The independent investigation turned into a book that he and Pollack would write together. They made an odd pair: Eden’s cool, preppy eloquence and Pollack’s brash swagger. The two men had almost nothing in common—“I can't imagine any circumstances under which we would have struck up a friendship,” Eden said—yet they reached a point where each knew what the other would say about anything they found. They are both Jewish, said Eden, and that seemed significant. Pollack leaned into this idea, telling Eden their collaboration was “like a Moses and Aaron thing.” Pollack believed he was channeling something he couldn’t express, but that was why Eden was there—to help him find the words. He had come to see PROMISE, and everything it stood for, as key to the entire tragedy. As he put it: “The reason [Cruz] murdered my daughter and 16 other people was that the system around him was even sicker than he was.”
At the Broward County School Board building, a high-rise in downtown Fort Lauderdale just steps from the courthouse, district officials couldn’t believe that PROMISE was becoming a scapegoat for the shootings. Chief Academic Officer Daniel Gohl started a spreadsheet to track the spread of the claims. At first, he said, the attacks seemed like “throwing spaghetti against the wall.” But then, they started to stick, maybe because PROMISE tapped into so many cultural divisions at once: debates about child-rearing and which kids are dangerous, suspicions that the Obama administration had favored minorities, and simmering racial and political tensions within Broward itself.
As the strongest Democratic county in the state, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1, Broward conservatives bitterly resented what they saw as monolithic liberal power. Runcie’s tenure in Broward had been complicated by some of his efforts to combat inequality: A decision to transfer a star principal from an A-rated suburban school to an F-rated inner-city institution had rankled.
Runcie himself viewed the attacks on PROMISE as part of a Trump-era push to undo anything associated with Obama—even if “what we put here in Broward County had nothing to do with the Obama administration.” He found himself starring in Parkland conspiracy theories, including one that accused him of working with Sheriff Scott Israel (and Obama, and Hillary Clinton) to let Cruz loose in order to facilitate a gun grab. The Borges’ family attorney, Eden later wrote, told him he’d learned about PROMISE from a blog that urges traditionalist Christians to migrate to a “Redoubt” of survivalist communities in Idaho and that blamed PROMISE in part on George Soros. Like a constant drumbeat below these claims was the knowing repetition that Runcie hailed from Chicago. After a while, noted Runcie, who said he spent the first few weeks after the shooting working 15-hour days, seven days a week, “I stopped looking at all the stuff from what I call ‘the crazies.’”
A week after Preston’s school board speech, a community forum was convened at a local high school. Nearly two months after the shooting, it was clear there had been real and systemic failures across multiple agencies. The FBI and Broward County Sheriff’s Office hadn’t followed up on obvious warnings, including a tip about a YouTube video in which Cruz allegedly declared he was “going to be a professional school shooter.” Sheriff's officers had contact with Cruz’s family 43 times since 2008, but he’d never been arrested.
But when it came time for parents, students and teachers to voice their anger, PROMISE was a recurring target. A teacher from South Plantation who’d lost a loved one at MSD said the program had “created a safe haven for criminals in our schools.” A father of three Parkland students waved a copy of a disciplinary document, claiming that it allowed “students convicted of rape and murder to sit next to our kids.”
Runcie and other district employees tried to explain that the program was used for only 2 to 3 percent of all student behavioral offenses and that 90 percent of its graduates weren’t repeat offenders.
Tim Sternberg, a former assistant principal at the school where PROMISE is based, also claimed the district classified recidivism as a second violation of the same offense, theoretically meaning a student could commit all 13 PROMISE-eligible offenses in a year without being considered a repeat offender. Although this claim appeared in news reports, Runcie and Pope said it had never been true.
But none of that seemed to matter, as dozens of speakers lined up for more than an hour. A mother suggested that when the district hired security contractors, it favored “minority and diversity outreach” vendors over those with safety expertise. Members of the audience shouted: “Where is the money?” One father told Runcie he’d watched him during the Pledge of Allegiance and hadn’t seen his lips move. Runcie clenched his jaw and said nothing.
Kenny Preston took the mic again, more combative than the week before. “I don’t want a runaround,” he admonished Runcie. When Preston called for the district to vote out the existing board and elect new leadership, the applause in the room was deafening.
The city of Parkland is a pristine, almost antiseptic landscape of more than two dozen interlocking gated communities. For years, strict zoning laws prohibited the construction of any stores within its limits. In 2017, it was named the safest city in Florida. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, nestled amid the pink stucco, palm trees and man-made lakes, had long been considered the district’s most desirable school.
Many months after the shooting, messages of support were still draped on the buildings surrounding MSD. Gauzy purple bows hung from the trees lining the school driveway; #MSDStrong T-shirts were everywhere. Bereaved parents who’d been counseled to stay busy created foundations in their children’s names, made rubber bracelets with different colors for the victims, became lay experts on ballistics or metal detectors.
Whenever Eden visited, he stayed in a house that felt haunted. Earlier that spring, the far fence of the Pollacks’ backyard tennis court had been interwoven with pink tape spelling Meadow’s name, for a memorial playground fundraiser. The tape remained there for months, a physical reminder of her absence, alongside subtler reminders, like the part of the fence that was damaged when a tree fell on it but never got repaired.
Every morning, Eden and Pollack walked to Pollack’s favorite cafe in a nearby retail strip for breakfast. Eden spent his days interviewing MSD teachers, administrators, students and parents. He found he could only stay in Parkland for a few nights at a time. Talking with traumatized people and learning more about Cruz left him feeling exhausted and dirty. He watched one source, a teacher who’d been at the school that day, sink into depression. He couldn’t sleep at all in Broward, nor well in Washington—only in his childhood bed at his parents’ home in Cleveland. So that summer he flew in a triangle, from Broward to Cleveland to Washington, then back for another round.
Pollack, meanwhile, could never turn off. “With Andy, it’s the same at 7:30 a.m. as it is at 11 p.m. as it is at 3 p.m.,” Eden said. “I don’t think he can do anything else.”
“This is my life now,” Pollack would tell reporters—so many reporters he couldn’t remember whom he’d spoken to.
That summer, Pollack threw himself into the campaign to oust Runcie. At a backyard barbecue with other MSD families, Preston, Pollack and others brainstormed candidates. They hoped to elect three to four new school board members to form a five-seat majority that could unseat Runcie and shut down PROMISE. Preston and Pollack met with Lori Alhadeff and Ryan Petty, two parents of Parkland victims.
Pollack also approached Richard Mendelson, a former MSD social studies teacher and wrestling coach who teaches in the psychology graduate program at Fort Lauderdale’s Keiser University. Mendelson had been a close friend of Aaron Feis, one of three MSD coaches killed by Cruz. Soon after the shooting, he wrote Pollack to offer his support, and after the idea of running was proposed, he quickly agreed. His opponent would be Laurie Rich Levinson, who had signed the original PROMISE agreement as a representative of the school board. The battle lines couldn’t have been clearer.
The anti-Runcie forces got an early boost in May, when a local NPR station reported that Cruz had been referred to PROMISE, despite Runcie’s repeated assurances otherwise. Runcie’s staff returned to their records—distributed across 17 different data systems, plus paper archives—and eventually found that during the first month of PROMISE’s existence, in November 2013, an eighth-grade Cruz had been referred for breaking a bathroom faucet. They couldn’t confirm whether he’d actually attended.
Later, even some of the most vehement critics, including Eden, would admit that it was probably some kind of records mishap.
I met Alhadeff, a teacher turned stay-at-home mother, in the empty banquet room of her gated community’s clubhouse. She recalled how at the shiva for her daughter, “hundreds” of people told her, “we want change, we want change”—but then were unwilling to do anything. “It just became very clear to me that I needed to be able to step up,” she said. Both Alhadeff and Petty called for school security improvements, like bulletproof doors, and vowed to review PROMISE. Petty tweeted that such programs created “perverse incentives” for schools, while Alhadeff told reporters that the district had swung from “over-disciplining kids to not disciplining kids at all.”
Eden said Pollack had sometimes struggled to grasp his systemic arguments about school discipline reform—how the specifics of Cruz’s story connected to Eden’s broader thesis. But Pollack’s quest for “accountability” became all-consuming. In June, Pollack learned that the school guard who’d failed to confront Cruz
Mendelson seems to relish the incongruity of his large, boisterous bearing and his fondness for intellectual debate—a bookish jock. We met at a Starbucks, along with Ray Feis, the younger brother of his late friend, Aaron. Ray has the same bald head and glasses as his brother, the same ruddy coloring and red beard. He’d lived next door to Aaron but had sold his house after the shooting. “It just didn't feel right, seeing other people move in and him not being there, you know,” he told me. During our conversation, Mendelson turned to a coffee-stained copy of a Broward policy document to argue that “even capital offenses”—like rape and murder—“are considered school-based discipline issues now.”
The issue of school discipline was finally attracting national attention among conservatives. In mid-July, Pollack and Preston traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at the high school leadership summit of Turning Point USA. The pro-Trump group had recently named an MSD student as its high school outreach coordinator.
Pollack had also gained an unlikely ally in Tim Sternberg, a former assistant principal at Pine Ridge, where the PROMISE program is housed. Sternberg believed, he said, in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. But he’d come to view PROMISE as disorganized and ineffective. (In addition, he claimed to Eden, he’d been passed over for two promotions that went to black candidates.) When Sternberg resigned in 2017, he sent a flurry of emails to Runcie and others about what he saw as the program’s shortcomings but was unsatisfied with the responses. Even though Sternberg believed the program was ultimately salvageable, he began sharing information with Eden and Pollack. “I started almost joining a bandwagon of ‘PROMISE, PROMISE, PROMISE,’” he said.
The MSD safety commission tried to calm the furor. In mid-July 2018, its chair, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, emphatically declared to reporters that PROMISE was “completely irrelevant, it's a rabbit hole, it's a red herring, it's immaterial.” But there was too much anger swirling around the school district and its officials, some of it stemming from unrelated grievances. The district had sometimes appeared less than forthcoming with the press or public. Promised security updates had been delayed, and family members of the victims accused the district of doing a poor job of attending to survivors’ needs. One victim’s mother, who was also a Broward elementary principal, initially wasn’t paid when she took bereavement leave. That summer, a Sun Sentinel investigation found that MSD—like many other Florida schools—had underreported campus crime, in order to attract or retain students.
And, in August, the Sun Sentinel discovered that an outside consultant had found serious failures in how the district—as well as other local agencies—had handled Nikolas Cruz. According to Cruz’s mother, he had suffered from autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Under federal disability law, Cruz was supposed to have access to the most mainstream educational environment possible. After being sent to Cross Creek, a school for students with intensive behavioral issues, in middle school, he’d done well enough to be transitioned to MSD by 10th grade. However, when he was 18, district staff had incorrectly allowed him to forfeit his disability status in order to stay at MSD, even though he’d displayed disturbing signs of needing help, including bringing dead animals and bullets to school, cutting himself and discussing suicide attempts. In the eyes of the district, he was now a general education student and ultimately had to withdraw after failing classes. Days later, he bought the AR-15 he’d use to kill his classmates. When his mother later tried to re-enroll him in Cross Creek, the district failed to follow through.
Even MSD families who didn’t share Pollack’s politics, or his focus on PROMISE, began to join the calls for Runcie’s ouster. One of the most high-profile was Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was Cruz’s second-to-last victim. Guttenberg had become a full-time advocate for gun control after Jaime’s death. He tweeted that Runcie had “lost the faith” of those he was supposed to lead and that the school board needed a “wholesale makeover.”
An already ugly race turned uglier. “Oust Runcie” bumper stickers, in MSD colors, proliferated around Parkland, although some critics referred to the superintendant as “Duncie.” On Twitter, Mendelson wrote that the election was “good versus evil” and would decide whether children “will return home safely each afternoon.” He hinted to me that Broward’s problems were partly caused by its mistaken focus on diversity. “If you were to look at the demographics of people who have been advanced into leadership roles in the past decade, as opposed to the general populace, you would see a vast difference, because they misinterpret what diversity means here,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable going further than that because I wouldn’t want the implications of that to be put in print with my name next to it.”
When early voting started in mid-August, Mendelson’s and Levinson’s volunteers set up camp across from each other at polling stations. Pollack was a daily fixture at one, often showing up with his dog. Ray Feis manned the table at another location daily with his younger sister. He’d been undone by Aaron’s death, friends said, and had quit his job as a manager at a pool repair company to focus on the campaign. Almost every day, the police were called to polling stations following accusations of harassment from both camps. Levinson said that Mendelson volunteers called her a murderer with blood on her hands. Ray Feis in turn claimed that when he introduced himself to Levinson’s husband, “he started cursing me out.” (Mendelson said, “I cannot speak to every polling site, but where I was located, this simply did not happen.” Levinson said on behalf of her husband, “He did not use any curse words. He wouldn’t shake his hand because of what they were saying about his wife all day.”)
One day, two deputies questioned Mendelson, responding to complaints that supporters had been heard screaming at voters, “You don’t care about my brother.”
In Fort Lauderdale, the officials who’d created PROMISE repeated a sentiment so often it seemed like a mantra: that this was grief, and grief was a process, and that they had to respect that process no matter what form it took. Sometimes, though, respecting the process made it hard to defend themselves.
At public forums where he or PROMISE were frequently attacked, Runcie’s face was a mask of calm: listening and nodding; responding in measured tones; biting his tongue when attacked; making himself available to talk even as critics claimed in viral videos that he was ignoring them. One-on-one, he was considerably more exasperated. “Hell yeah,” there were kindergartners in the PROMISE program who could have otherwise gotten arrest records for having tantrums, he told me. This “law enforcement criminalization mentality,” he said, “man, we know that doesn’t work.”
Runcie argued that the real problem wasn’t excessive leniency, but that Broward’s disciplinary standards were still unevenly applied. Broward’s wealth distribution is often described as following a roughly east-west axis, dividing Fort Lauderdale and other eastern communities that struggle with urban poverty from wealthy western suburbs like Parkland. Multiple educators told me they suspected that, contrary to public perception, it was the wealthy western schools that were most likely to underreport infractions.
“You’ve got a lot of people in the communities that make the most noise about our discipline,” said Runcie. And yet, “they’re the very first ones to come in and say, you know, John or Sally is a great straight-A student; they’re going to be graduating this year and we don’t need some discipline record that will taint their chances.”
Those are the schools, he continued, where parents mediate off-the-record resolutions to fights or bring in lawyers to contest a three-day suspension. “Think about that,” he continued. “What kid in a middle-class or poor community [can] get an attorney to show up with their parent at school and say, ‘I need this taken care of’?” Weekes, the public defender who helped develop PROMISE, argued that administrators need the discretion to say, “‘I know this kid and this kid’s mom just lost her house or got a divorce—they acted up for two days after that.’” But, he went on, “We want that to happen across the board, with all children. And it wasn’t happening so much with children of color.”
There are no hard numbers measuring how many students get these kinds of informal second chances.
Tim Sternberg sometimes worried about what would happen if his new friends in the anti-PROMISE brigade got what they wanted. “Then what?” he asked. “Then we’re back to kids being arrested at 10, 11 years old? The kids in the west will continue getting away with what they get away with, because that’s what they’ve always done, and the administrators in the east will do what they do, so those kids all get arrested?”
Runcie looked increasingly exhausted. His own children had received death threats at their schools or jobs. Over the years, he had taught himself to cope with trauma: As a child, his mother had been shot in the face in a hate crime while he sat beside her on their front porch. In Chicago, 300 to 400 students in his district were shot every year. “You need to find ways to create positive things out of tragedy,” he said, “or you go around creating more tragedy.” The idea of responding to the Parkland shooting by throwing the book at students for offenses that didn’t endanger school safety struck him as morally wrong. “If that’s what we’ve gotta do,” he said, “then I’m just not gonna do this work.”
On August 28, election night, the Mendelson camp gathered at a Coral Springs restaurant to wait for the returns, feeling sure of victory. They’d raised over $40,000, knocked on 50,000 doors. “How could you not vote this man in?” one supporter asked. “He was going to be the savior of this community.” But when the results came in, Levinson had won with 56 percent of the vote. (Lori Alhadeff won her race, while Ryan Petty did not.) MSD students who’d volunteered on Mendelson’s campaign were weeping, as were some of the adults. “I don’t know the last time that I cried before these candidates lost the school board race,” said Eden, who described the campaign as a joint effort, despite his intentions to maintain “journalistic detachment.”
Pollack found himself filled with disgust. In a county that had become synonymous with contested elections, he doubted the veracity of the results. But then, he reasoned, it was par for the course in the “politically correct cesspool” that was Democratic Broward. He put his house up for sale. “I gave it my all,” he told me, “and now it’s just like, let Rome burn, let Broward burn.”
Pine Ridge Education Center, where the PROMISE program is housed, is a bustling, friendly place. When I visited last October, kids and their parents waited for appointments in the front office, which was decorated with gigantic, candy-colored blowups from the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” Most of the high school students were there for fighting or marijuana possession. In one class I attended, they worked in clusters to answer questions about substance addiction. In a room across the hall, middle school children plugged missing words into sentences on the blackboard about self-esteem and bullying.
The week before, Mickey Pope, the Broward school official, had taken a local mayor on a tour of the school. She said the mayor had been taken aback to discover elementary school students there—like many others, she'd thought PROMISE was for chronic delinquents, or at least much older kids. When they encountered a 5-year-old attendee, the mayor knelt beside him. “Baby, why are you here?” she asked. “I was bad,” the boy told her. He’d gotten mad and started crying, then kicked his teacher when she tried to take him to the office. (Before PROMISE, Pope said, he could have been arrested for battery of a school board employee.)
The attacks on PROMISE had left its staff demoralized and depressed. Dr. Henry Brown, Pine Ridge’s principal, had come back to work early after having open heart surgery to throw a small party for his staff, in an attempt to cheer them up. He reminded them to stay focused on the students, but it was difficult. There was already a perception that theirs was a bad school, full of bad kids, and now that perception had hardened along racial lines. Black parents, he said, continued to see PROMISE “as an opportunity to help their child from becoming another statistic,” while vehement opponents had little understanding of the program or the students it served. PROMISE students, he said, included kids in foster care, kids facing the possible deportation of a parent, kids shouldering outsize responsibilities while their parents worked multiple jobs. One fourth grader had recently wanted to set up a lemonade stand so her mother could find someplace to live.
Laura Kolo, a coordinator who’d been with PROMISE since its second year, insisted that contrary to the criticisms, the program did have a curriculum and a structure, one that had been vastly transformed since its inception. Students rarely returned more than once, and the majority of those that did were in elementary or middle school—not the dangerous teens depicted in public debate. When “high alert cases” came in—students who required more intensive intervention than PROMISE could provide—the public didn’t see the effort that went into connecting them with social services, therapy and legal help. “We would say, ‘Come visit! Look what we’re doing, the lives that we’re changing,’” said Kolo. “Sometimes the kids are good, sometimes they’re not so good. That’s what we’re dealing with.” But, she said, the critics never came.
The battle over PROMISE had rattled its creators, too. A month after the school board election, the district’s Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline Committee held its quarterly meeting. Before the shooting, its members used to talk about how to make the program better, poring over data about patterns for various offenses. These days, their work was inevitably derailed by conversations about preventing another shooting—a crucial subject, but not the committee’s responsibility. From a corner of the table, Gordon Weekes interjected wearily: “We’re here to talk about minor school-based misbehavior.” It was important, he felt, not to let the kids who needed PROMISE get lost in the aftermath of the tragedy.
For Weekes, the situation was particularly fraught. He had helped develop PROMISE, but, as a member of the public defender’s office, he was also part of Cruz’s legal team. On the day of the shooting, he’d been one of two staffers sent to address the media and had broken down on national television while noting the number of the victims.
In his role as Cruz’s co-counsel, Weekes had criticized the district for “all the missed opportunities in this matter.” When I spoke to him in September, he couldn’t discuss whether he believed Broward had a culture of leniency, he said, because that might be “a pivotal issue in our case.” In other words, as part of Weekes’ legal duty to explore every avenue of defense in a death penalty case, he might have to attack the operation of a program he believed in, deeply, for everything it had done for Broward’s students of color.
Another committee member, Judge Elijah Williams, observed that it was Columbine that had prompted a larger police presence in schools in the first place. “That’s how we got into this mess,” he said. It had taken 10 years, as thousands of kids were needlessly funnelled into the criminal justice system, for schools to address the harm that was being done. Now, Williams lamented, the post-Parkland clamor for more school guards threatened to land them right back where they’d started.
As the first anniversary of the Parkland shooting drew near, the community planned moments of silence and days of service to honor their dead. At the time, Eden wondered whether Pollack, who’d poured his grief almost entirely into his battles, was having trouble accepting that “there’s only so much that can be fought, and we’ve just about reached the end of it.”
Pollack sold his house and went on the road in his camper. In 2018, he’d promoted an initiative, named for Aaron Feis, to install more armed guards in public schools; one county training included a virtual reality simulation in which potential guards practiced shooting a gunman on campus. Now, Pollack met with police chiefs across Florida to warn them against programs like PROMISE. In an interview on NRATV, he declared he would “take [Runcie] out if it’s the last thing I do on earth.” “Him or the PROMISE program,” he told me. “One of them is going to go.”
In early February, the Sun Sentinel reported that the former MSD security guard who failed to confront Cruz had requested a protective order against Pollack. He said that Pollack came to a youth baseball practice he was coaching, shouting that he wasn’t through with him yet. (“It's not accurate. I showed up at the game because I couldn’t believe that those parents would let their kids be coached by a guy like that,” Pollack said. “I wasn’t heckling him. I just told him that I have my lawsuit and that I’m not through with it and him yet.”)
In late 2018, Eden and Pollack finished their book, “Why Meadow Died.” Due out later this year, the book delivers Eden’s policy arguments in Pollack’s everyman voice. They hadn’t tried to interview Runcie or visit Pine Ridge. But the book’s seventh chapter opens with a surprising line: “The fact that the PROMISE program is a farce is interesting and noteworthy, but it bears little direct relevance to the tragedy.”
In late December, the MSD safety commission had come to the same conclusion. Buried beneath its unexpected recommendation to allow arming teachers, the commission’s report found that even if Cruz had been referred for arrest in 2013 over the broken bathroom faucet, Florida law would have mandated his immediate release to his mother. In addition, any record Cruz might have received for such a minor offense wouldn’t have prevented him from buying a gun. “I’ve been battling this for eight, nine months,” said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, MSD safety commission chair, at one school board meeting. “People say, well, if he’d been arrested that would have prevented him from being able to purchase the firearms. That is 100 percent false and not true whatsoever.”
After finishing the book, Eden began emphasizing to me a point he hadn’t made before: that in his initial City Journal op-ed, he had never actually mentioned the word “PROMISE.” He told me he had only intended to suggest that its potential role was a question someone should answer. Now, he was worried that his book would be dismissed as the NRA counternarrative, and that, if DeVos withdrew the Obama discipline guidance, newspaper headlines would read: “Unconnected effort to reduce discrimination is a casualty of the Parkland shooting.” He began saying that the criticisms of PROMISE had been caricatured and that to claim the program was the sole cause of the massacre “would be a dumb argument indeed.”
In truth, Eden had come to view the Parkland shooting as more complex than he’d originally understood. Now, he said, he saw it as a story of intersecting institutional failures, less about excessive leniency alone and more about how schools handle students with extreme behavioral disabilities. The policy pressures to place Cruz in the most mainstream classroom setting possible, he contended, combined with the expense of special education, had prevented Cruz from being placed in the alternative school setting he needed. (Runcie said cost is "not part of the conversations" when specialists determine the best educational placement for students.)
It was an argument that raises important questions, but also one less amenable to electric reaction. Balancing the right of students with disabilities to reach their full potential against the rights of other students to learn without disruption is a challenge everywhere, and even more so at schools like MSD. One of Pollack’s and Mendelson’s most outspoken volunteers proudly told me how she’d forced a principal to put her special-needs son in regular classes so that he wouldn’t pick up bad habits from the kids in special ed. As Eden acknowledged, it’s an issue that “doesn’t cut super neatly either way.”
But by the time Eden had reached this conclusion, his hoped-for goal had been achieved. In December, DeVos and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker officially withdrew the Obama guidance. As a result, some school districts may repeal their reforms and the Department of Education will likely be less aggressive in investigating alleged discrimination. And on February 13, a day before the anniversary of the shooting, Florida’s new Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, whom Pollack had campaigned for, called for a grand jury investigation into whether the school district bore any responsibility for the shooting. In addition, he ordered a statewide audit of all diversion programs, specifically naming PROMISE.
That month, the movement to fire Runcie also came to its heated conclusion. On February 25, the district held its third town hall meeting on school safety. Kenny Preston was there, and so was Tim Sternberg, who’d recently announced his own candidacy for the board, championing Pollack’s #fixit slogan. It might have been a replay of all the other meetings—but this time, Runcie had defenders: more than 1,000 people attended, many from other parts of Broward, many of them black. Some came on church buses. Some may have been alerted by an email sent by a district employee, who described the rhetoric coming from Parkland as “like nothing that has been seen since desegregation orders were enforced”—a characterization that angered many critics. Runcie’s supporters expressed condolences to the grieving families but said their side of town hadn’t been represented in the debates over the last year.
The vice mayor of West Park condemned “people who are pimping the pain of the victims” for political or personal vendettas. A state senator who represents parts of eastern Broward declared, “Just as strongly as you feel about getting rid of Bob Runcie, we feel just as strong that it ain’t going to happen.” Fred Guttenberg spoke, wearing a shirt bearing Jaime's name and evidently distressed. “The bullet that shot my daughter did not know what color she was,” he said, jabbing his finger in the air. “And I’m frustrated as hell at what’s happening in this room tonight to make this about color and socioeconomic status.”
But for many of the black attendees at the town hall, the attacks on PROMISE had always been about color. After the meeting, online Runcie critics wrote that “the ‘bused’ people” had “taken over” the meeting and left no room for “legitimately concerned parents.” Pollack tweeted that Runcie was “trying to spark racial conflict” in “a demented effort to save his job.” After a school board meeting the next day, Lori Alhadeff called for a vote on whether to fire Runcie for “willful neglect of duty.”
The vote took place on March 5. Hundreds of people spilled into the halls and two overflow rooms. Over more than four hours, five people spoke in favor of Runcie’s termination, including one victim’s father. Eighty spoke in his defense, including local politicians, educators, clergy and two black mothers of MSD survivors. Many emphasized that Parkland was not the only community that had lost, or stood to lose, its children. “We grieved for you in a way that you’ll never understand,” said one man with a soft Caribbean accent. “It ripped our hearts open.” Others spoke of the need to move on. Runcie’s wife, Diana, spoke last. She recalled her husband coming home the night of the shooting, crying, and telling her, “I can’t believe I lost my babies.”
Alhadeff’s motion lost, 6-3. Runcie would stay. He told me that he hoped the district could harness all that passion from the meetings to find a way forward. To him, the fight over PROMISE had raised “a big philosophical question [about] what we mature into as a society, how we raise our kids, how we develop human beings. Do we recognize that all our fates are connected together? That what happens to you ultimately is somehow going to impact me?”
But a year after the shooting, not all shared such an optimistic view. Parents who’d become close in the immediate aftermath of the shooting had become estranged over political differences; the county seemed more polarized than ever before. At that final town hall, Fred Guttenberg took stock of the situation with a muted, weary anger: “My daughter is dead, and this community is coming apart.”