A Search For Answers, A Search For Blame

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A Search For Answers, A Search For Blame

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.

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The tony community from above. REUTERS/CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS

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.

Andrew Pollack TOM WILLIAMS/CQ ROLL CALL/GETTY IMAGES

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.( 9 )
Fourteen-year-old Alyssa Alhadeff, the captain of her soccer team, and Alaina Petty, a Junior ROTC cadet, were killed in the same English class.

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.( 10 )
At most, Cruz’s absence was potentially missed by different data systems that weren’t synced in 2013. At the least, the district said, his referral may have been one of many automatically generated options, lingering in the system as a sort of digital ghost.
But to Pollack, it was hard proof that Runcie, “a guy with a Harvard education,” had intentionally misled the people of Parkland. A week later, Petty and Alhadeff jointly announced that they were challenging two school board members as an explicit rebuke to the district.

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.”

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Lori Alhadeff has left her daughter’s bedroom mostly untouched. In January 2019, Alyssa’s retainer was still there, along with her dirty clothes in a hamper. AP PHOTO/BRYNN ANDERSON

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( 11 )
By then, Cruz had been banned from campus; the guard, Andrew Medina, knew him as “crazy boy.”
had almost been fired the year before, over allegations that he’d sexually harassed several students. One was Meadow. The guard, who denied the accusations, had received a three-day suspension. Pollack was enraged to discover that he was still working at MSD.( 12 )
Pollack said he and two other fathers complained to MSD. Medina was not rehired for the 2018-2019 school year.

That, Eden recalled, was when the culture of Broward schools became a “cosmic problem” for his friend. Pollack stepped down from the MSD safety commission and took on the management of Mendelson’s campaign.

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.”( 13 )
Broward schools don’t handle major crimes. Mendelson seemed to be referencing a district policy outlining how schools should meet their legal obligation to educate all children, including those with criminal records.

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.( 14 )
Kyle Kashuv thrilled NRA fans by tweeting videos of himself shooting an AR-15. When his schoolmates rallied at the March for Our Lives, Kashuv told “Face the Nation” that Parkland students like him were being ignored. He and Preston wrote an op-ed calling for Runcie’s resignation.
At the TPUSA event—which offered scholarships to cover expenses for MSD students—Senator Marco Rubio introduced Pollack in a video. Pollack called on the audience to volunteer for Mendelson’s campaign, calling it “the single most important political race in 2018.”

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.

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Jennifer and Fred Guttenberg (front row, left) watch videos of the shooting at a meeting of the MSD public safety commission. Their daughter Jaime was among the victims. MIKE STOCKER/SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL VIA AP

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.”

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