Review: “Why Meadow Died” by Gila Hayes

[Ed: Why Meadow Died is a powerful testament by the father of one of the murdered students of the Parkland killings. Unlike most of those who hit the media after that, his is a rational voice for the protection of children in schools. While guns are necessary, much more change is required too. We thank Gila Haye’s at the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Fund who allows us to republish this, first appearing in the ACLDF’s March Network Journal. This is long, but worth it; lightly edited for clarity.]

Meadow Pollack, 18, was murdered on February 14, 2018 in Building 12 of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, FL. Her father has since become a very genuine voice advocating true school safety reform. Determined to fix the unconscionable discipline breakdown he found in Broward County, FL schools and schools all across the nation, Andrew Pollak has also founded a non-profit foundation to fix school safety issues and demand justice for the families of school violence victims.

His transformation into school safety activist from businessman and father is chronicled in Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created the Parkland Shooter and Endanger America’s Students, co-written with education policy expert, Max Eden. “This book is about exposing what went wrong in the schools so that parents across the country can learn from the MSD tragedy, find out what’s happening in their own kids’ schools, and keep their kids safe,” they write.

[H]e refuses to use the name of the murderer through much of his book, instead referring to FL prisoner number 18-1958. Much of the book illustrates the problems caused by leniency programs by recounting multiple failures to treat or punish 18-1958’s criminal behavior.

“Students told the media after the tragedy that 18-1958 had committed all sorts of crimes in school without consequence. If he’d been arrested, he could have been prohibited from buying a gun. Or maybe an arrest would have made the FBI follow up on, rather than drop, tips that 18-1958 might shoot up the school.” Students told reporters that he “threatened to kill them; he brought knives and bullets to school; he brought dead animals to school and bragged about mutilating them,” so many warnings existed before the killings, Pollack writes. How could all the crimes go ignored? Pollack and others began to investigate.

Pollock and his associates learned that failure to interdict violent students is a growing problem. In 2013, the Broward school superintendent rose to national fame in an article asserting, “Harsh discipline policies are falling out of favor across the country, but Broward County, Fla., is hoping to do away with them entirely.” Superintendent Robert Runcie had previously implemented leniency policies in the Chicago Public Schools earning praise from President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and spawning a leniency initiative dubbed PROMISE. After the Parkland murders, a reporter found that 18-1958 had been ordered to attend PROMISE in middle school but skipped out with no effort made to enforce his attendance.

The problem is much bigger than Broward County. Pollock cites 27 state laws mandating reductions in suspensions expulsions and/or arrests for crimes committed at schools. Pressure on schools to reduce discipline prevents educators from reporting student crimes and violent students are left in place where they disrupt classrooms instead of being moved into therapeutic settings that can treat their dysfunction.

In Broward County, the school district and sheriff’s office agreed to allow students three misdemeanor crimes per year before any report was filed with law enforcement. The negligence extended outside the schools. Sheriff Scott Israel had publicly stated, “We measure our success by the kids we keep out of jail, not by the kids we put in jail.” This mirrored schools across the nation that had also established campuses as “no-go zones for law enforcement.”

Liberals floated accusations that “racially biased teachers were unfairly punishing minority students” and pushed leniency in the name of equality. Max Eden writes that PROMISE projected “bottom lines” of lower suspensions, higher test scores and graduation rates in urban schools. Instead, standards dropped, school administrators created work-arounds to further avoid reporting student crime, and “principals across the district had dropped standards so low that students no longer needed to attend school in order to graduate.”

Nationwide, teachers and security personnel have been punished for reporting student misbehavior. They made tremendous allowances for fear of being sued by parents and suffering retaliation from school administrators. . .  Pollock concludes that the culture of tolerance assured students that the school would run interference on their behalf keeping them out of trouble even if they brought guns to school, sexually assaulted students and teachers, stole, trespassed or committed other crimes.

18-1958 didn’t slip through the cracks, Pollock asserts, his problems were deliberately ignored. After the murders, school administrators, judges and others excused and complimented one another; . . . a judge went so far as to describe the murder of the 17 MSD students a “so-called tragedy” and labeled as “racist” anyone wanting . . .  to punish students who commit crimes.

Why Meadow Died is divided into [four parts]. The first is told through the experiences of Parkland survivors, including a teacher who relied on training received elsewhere and kept her kids in the classroom when the fire alarms went off. Another source is a Venezuelan immigrant. His son was shot five times but survived. Other teachers’ and students’ stories are included. 19 year old home-schooled Kenneth Preston is a prominent voice in this book. He pursued the truth and wrote extensively about facts his research uncovered, but the school superintendent and school board smeared his reputation and recanted information they gave him.

[Preston] was not the only one treated badly. Parents and teachers, before and after the murders, were routinely brushed off by Broward school administration. Pollock asserts that, “the self-righteous and contemptuous attitude displayed by Broward’s leaders after the MSD tragedy helps to explain why it happened.”

In a troubling Part 2, the authors study the upbringing of 18-1958 (whose mother had a violent criminal history related to drugs): his adoption and home life, early violent acts, and school history. He was only briefly treated at a school for students with extreme behavioral disabilities, returning to MSD despite continued obsession with violence because he asked to be “mainstreamed.”

After 18-1958 instigated a particularly vicious fight, school officials ordered students who took videos of the fight to delete them, fearing embarrassment if the footage showed up on YouTube. Frightened, the students begged for help, complaining that he had “threatened to kill them and/or their families; he had threatened to rape people; he brought dead animals, knives, and bullets to school.”

The mental health agency charged with ordering treatment for 18-1958 interviewed him four days before February 14, 2018 but failed to refute the obvious when he denied suicide attempts while displaying cuts he had made on his arms. A frightened school counselor appealed to the mental health agency that had treated 18-1958, but the agency “decided [he] didn’t even merit observation,” although he had stated his intent to obtain firearms. Sheriff’s deputies [had] responded to 18-1958’s home 45 times prior to his killing rampage but when a citizen warned about 18-1985’s Instagram of guns and comments that he planned to kill people in his school, law enforcement declined [even] to . . . write a report.

Although she frequently called for police intervention, 18-1958’s mother lied to investigators about her son’s problems and late in 2016 allowed her son to buy his first gun. By then, he had turned 18 and many options to intervene had evaporated. His adoptive father died and then his mother. When his cousin asked the sheriff’s office to seize 18-1958’s firearms in the wake of his mother’s death, a deputy refused to write a report about her concerns.

The negligence compounded on the day of the shooting. A gate that school policy mandated should be locked was routinely left open for the convenience of loading buses of special education students. A campus security monitor riding a golf cart around the perimeter recognized 18-1958 as he got out of an Uber ride carrying a black canvas rifle bag. The monitor considered approaching him but was afraid to, so he radioed another security monitor.

Either man could have called a “Code Red” warning, but did not, later stating that training allowed “Code Reds” only if a gun [i]s seen. Additionally, the principal had mandated that only he was allowed to call a Code Red, although he was out of the country on vacation with his girlfriend [that day]. The assistant principal . . . in charge said the volume on his portable radio was turned down so he did not hear the first gunshots nor any of the early radio warnings about 18-1958’s intrusion on to campus.

The perimeter security monitor radioed another monitor to report [that] 18-1958 [was] headed into Building 12. This monitor, presuming 18-1958 planned to go upstairs, ran into a stairwell intending to visually observe the intruder. 18-1958 instead loaded a magazine for his rifle and started killing. After warning a freshman to get out of the way, he shot and injured a band student on her way to the bathroom, then killed three students. The second security monitor heard the shots and still did not call a Code Red. Finally, a fire alarm activated, prompting the assistant principal to evacuate the building, exposing a host of students to deadly danger . . . [as they] rushed out of classrooms and crowded into the hallways. If a Code Red had been announced, their teachers would have secured them inside the classrooms.

Meanwhile Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, the school’s SRO, arrived outside building 12 and ordered security monitors to get out of the building. Peterson drew his gun and hid outside for nearly an hour. When other Broward County deputies arrived, they, too, remained outside. 18-1958 moved through the school unimpeded. A student and two heroic teachers were killed as they shielded students or helped them escape. 18-1958 dropped his rifle and walked out in the crowd of escaping students. He was later picked up by law enforcement several miles from the school.

Woven through the history of discipline-free schools, is the story of Andrew Pollack dealing with his daughter’s death. As Meadow’s senior class celebrated graduation, Pollock reports that he went out of town to support “a new generation of armed guards to protect schools under the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. It meant the world to me to watch those guards get trained. Because I know that if Aaron Feis had had a gun, Meadow would be alive,” he explains.

The school later unanimously rejected funding for armed guards under the program named for Feis, the heroic coach who died at their school trying to save children from 18-1958. After months of blustering, the school hired eight of the 80 armed guards originally authorized. Metal detectors were promised as well, but two weeks before the 2019 school year started, Runcie decided not to install them and it was later learned that they had never even been ordered.

Frustrated by the official inaction, Pollock busied himself raising funds for a memorial playground built to honor his daughter and the other victims killed February 14, 2018, campaigned for election of school board members who would change Broward School District, and continued to investigate and dispute lies by the many officials involved in Meadow’s death, from SRO Scott Peterson to Superintendent Runcie.

Nationwide, David Hogg greedily sought the spotlight to politicize the murders of the 17 at MSD. His pursuit of fame eclipsed much of what went wrong in the Broward schools. In counterpoint, Why Meadow Died tells–often in his own words–the story of another young man, a physically frail 19-year-old who worked tirelessly to expose the truth about the Broward School District, Broward Teacher’s Union and all the corrupt administrators and elected officials. Kenneth Preston’s influence is felt in nearly every chapter of Why Meadow Died, and while he’ll never get a second of time in the mainstream media’s spotlight, that young man’s hours of hard work should have been the counter-balance to Hogg’s insatiable lust for fame.

Unlike most of the books we review, Why Meadow Died is not a gun book, it is not about legal defense or about the courts or even about personal safety. The book outlines the factors that allowed 18-1985 to become who he was, get a gun, and go to his school to murder students. The book underscores how schools are manipulated for political and material gain, and although in the end, Pollock wasn’t able to change Broward School District, there have been schools that have discarded failed leniency policies and schools that may be able, through understanding the connections Pollock and Eden draw, to save their schools from deteriorating as badly as the Broward County, FL schools.

Pollock’s final words are, “Talk to your kids’ teachers. Talk off the record so that they’ll tell you the truth. And if they’re telling you that the social justice discipline stuff is a problem, then take the issue to your school board. Tell them to get rid of ‘restorative justice’ or ‘Multi-Tiered System of Supports’ or ‘Response to Intervention’ or whatever else they call it. Tell them to get back to the old system that the social justice activists say is now politically incorrect: rules, warnings, and consequences. And if you can’t convince them, vote them out of office,” he urges. “The only reason that our schools work this way is because we, the parents, allow it. You simply have to step up, get involved, and make a difference for your children. You can’t let your schools be run like the Broward County Public Schools district.”

Pollock is right . . . [No other parent or reviewer] could . . . ever wield the same power as Andrew Pollock’s story of Why Meadow Died.

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Gila Hayes manages operations for the Armed Citizens’ Legal Defense Network, and serves as editor of the Network’s online journal, with two decades of shooting and firearms training experience. Gila authored the books Effective Defense, Personal Defense for Women and Concealed Carry for Womenwas Women’s Editor for Gun Digest, and has published many articles in firearm magazines.