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September 9 2019

Back to School Safety: New Book on Parkland Shooting Reveals Scary School Policies that Could Endanger Your Child

featuring Inez Feltscher Stepman

It's Back to School time already, but are your kids safe? The school safety conversation in the media has centered around gun control, but the gun violence narrative is obscuring risky education and discipline policies that might place students in danger. Education researcher Max Eden joins She Thinks to talk about the new book he co-authored with Parkland parent Andy Pollack, what every parent needs to know as they send their kids back to school this fall, and how families can get their power back to ensure their kids are safe.

Beverly H.:
Hey everyone, it's Beverly Hallberg. Welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the Independent Women's Forum, where we talk with women and sometimes men about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Enjoy.

Inez Stepman:
Welcome and thanks for tuning in to a special pop-up episode at the Independent Women's Forum podcast, She Thinks. I'm Inez Stepman with IWF and I'm pleased today to welcome Max Eden as our guest. Max is an education policy researcher with years of experience focused on education and education reform, including school choice. His work has been published in both scholarly and popular outlets, including places like the Washington Post, US News and World Report and National Review.

Inez Stepman:
But he's here today because he's the co-author of an upcoming book with Parkland parent, Andy Pollack, Why Meadow Died: The People and Policies That Created The Parkland Shooter and Endanger American Students.

Inez Stepman:
Max, welcome to She Thinks and thanks for being here to discuss this incredibly important topic with us.

Max Eden:
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

Inez Stepman:
So what drew you to to writing this book? I mean, how did you team up with Andy Pollack, how did you get interested in this topic of discipline and specifically what went wrong in Parkland to begin with? I guess, it seems like a lot of our fights over these issues have come down to guns and not education policy.

Max Eden:
Yeah. So, a couple of weeks after the shooting, this pattern emerged. Right? I mean, some students came forward to talk about gun control and they got a lot of attention and more power to them, but other students came forward and they said, "You know, we all knew that he would do this. The student threatened to kill us. He threatened to shoot up the school. He brought knives to school, he brought bullets to school. Nobody was surprised that he did this. We saw something, we said something and they did nothing."

Max Eden:
And so when I saw this, I thought to myself, "Huh, this is in a school district that made itself nationally famous for its effort to fight the so-called school to prison pipeline by lowering suspensions, expulsions, and especially arrests. So did this pressure to reduce arrests, have something to do with this killer allegedly committing these crimes for which he was never arrested or disciplined?" That article very quickly became a partisan football. Right? Because it wasn't about gun control, it was very quickly cast as being pro-gun, which wasn't my intent and nobody really answered it.

Max Eden:
A couple of months after I wanted to answer it, I found an inn, I went down to talk to some students and teachers I'd been connected with and Andrew Pollack, who lost his daughter Meadow, heard that there was somebody from DC in town. And got my number, called me, asked me to come over to his house and explain what I was doing. He was doing this for everyone at the time. Wanted every bit of information that he could find.

Max Eden:
And after I kind of told him what I was looking for and looking into, he texted me later saying, "You know, Max, thank you so much. You're going to be such an asset in helping me find justice for my daughter's murder." And after getting that text, I realized I needed to come back one more time. And after learning enough of the story, I realized this isn't just an article, this isn't just a monograph. This has to be a book because it's such a profound case study on what's going wrong in American schools that it needs to have the full treatment, so it needs to have a deep compelling story behind it so the parents can really understand what's going on in their kid's schools too.

Inez Stepman:
So, tell us some of that story because you say in your book that this experience in Parkland that ended so incredibly tragically, was actually intersection of everything that's wrong with education in America today, all of those trends, all of these various well-meaning and often sort of sound-good policies. What do you mean when you say that this experience in Parkland and it's ultimately tragic results, sit at that intersection of so many of these trends in education policy that may not often bubble up into the news but deeply impact a student's experiences all across America in the school district?

Max Eden:
Yeah. So our thesis is that if one individual in the Broward County School District made one responsible decision about the shooter rather than a recklessly irresponsible one, then this tragedy could have been averted. But you can't really call it a total system of failure or a failure at all. And because all of these obviously morally wrong, recklessly irresponsible decisions actually make perfect sense given the policies that were governing the schools. And there are kind of two in particular that when they intersect, conform a really dangerous zone that the student happened to slide through his entire time in K-12.

Max Eden:
One is this pressure to educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment, which sounds very nice, sounds very just for students with hearing impairments or dyslexia or other learning disabilities. You don't want to just cast them aside into separate classrooms necessarily. But we also label students who are extremely disturbed as having an emotional and behavioral disability. And all of these pressures that are kind of designed for dyslexic, physically impaired students, also operate on extremely disturbed students. You're supposed to keep them in a normal classroom almost no matter what. And then here comes the intersection with the discipline policies. You're not supposed to disproportionately discipline them.

Max Eden:
So schools are under this pressure to discipline kids who behave badly at the same rate as kids who behave well. And then in Broward, that pressure is magnified because principals are told, "You're being judged by the numbers. You have to get suspension down, expulsions down, and arrests down." It means that with a student like the shooter and they're not terribly uncommon, the pressure is keep this kid in a normal classroom, even when everybody knows that he shouldn't be and don't document his behavior and don't have him be tagged by the criminal justice system or the mental health authorities. It's just a perfect cocktail for dangerous scenarios that usually amount to little more than unchecked violence and disruption. But in this case led to 17 deaths.

Inez Stepman:
So some of the distinctions you're drawing there between the kid who has dyslexia, who's being mainstreamed into classes versus someone who is really disturbed, I mean, like this shooter who had this incredible track record of violent outbursts, of bringing bullets to school, of making real threats. I mean, all of these things are criminal acts. I mean, this seems like an extinction that could easily be made and in fact was made and recognized by a lot of people who were on the ground.

Inez Stepman:
So, how exactly do those policies that you were talking about, about dropping or creating an incentive not to refer students to law enforcement, not to suspend students, not to discipline students in different rates, what effect do those policies sort of bureaucratically have on the ground when a teacher is looking at these two kids? One who might need a minor disciplinary action but is completely... one would think these are the sort of things that human beings are pretty good at distinguishing on the ground, but might be difficult from a bureaucratic perspective. I mean, how do those bureaucratic incentives start to affect what should be, as you said, basic common sense versus recklessly irresponsible?

Max Eden:
Yeah. Well, part of the problem is that a lot of these policies have effectively substituted bureaucratic compliance box-checking with a kind of ideological tint to it for normal, prudent human judgments. And I'll kind of give two examples of this, one from middle school and one from high school. And middle school, halfway through seventh grade year, something just kind of snapped in his head. He was suspended every other day for an entire calendar year. When you look at the teacher's records, he was talking about guns virtually every day. He talked to students about skinning animals. He vandalized property. He at one point tried to kill himself by running into oncoming traffic. Everybody knew that he shouldn't have been to that school. Everybody was scared of him. They had a security escort, escort him through the halls. He wasn't allowed to go through the halls alone. The security escort went into many of the classes when teachers were too scared to have him in their class. Eventually the security escort wasn't enough and they had his mom come to the school and follow him around as well.

Max Eden:
This persisted for about a calendar year because by the time they decided to start taking the steps to send him to the specialized school where everybody knew he needed to go, it took about five months. And when I showed this... If a parent were to hear this, they would think this is insane. They are purposefully, continually, intentionally endangering my child. This has to be profound educational malpractice. But the experts I've spoken to in the Broward School District say, "Oh, you know, that's about as fast as it can possibly go." So that's the way in which this kind of disability policy can hold an entire school hostage and not allow an obvious action to be taken that everybody knows it's the right thing to do. But you just can't do it until you go through months and months of paperwork.

Max Eden:
Another thing at the high school side, and the discipline piece in particular, he was, according to security staff, brought to the office all the time, maybe on a daily basis. Nothing in his discipline record reflects that. It's actually pretty clean in high school compared to middle school. This leniency pressure took hold in his high school years. It got so much to the point that they not only prohibited him from bringing a backpack to school, they also frisked him every day for fear that he might be carrying a deadly weapon and use it. But this doesn't really show up in his discipline record and it certainly didn't amount to an arrest. So you have a situation where the teachers are told, "If you see this kid with a backpack, let us know." The administrators are frisking him every day and this is business as usual. No law enforcement referral required.

Inez Stepman:
So you mentioned in the beginning of what you were just saying that there's an ideological sense to all of this, right? The idea that if there are disparities, the explanation for them must be discrimination or that if teachers make different decisions about the actions of one student versus another based on all these factors on the ground, that amount to the common sense that we're saying is so clearly lacking in this series of decision. Right? But our policies to a large extent say that that must be due to discrimination.

Inez Stepman:
You also note in the book that at one point there are two ways to be successful, right? Sort of in the education sphere. Especially if you're interested in reforming education or education policy, rather than being a teacher who's actually on the ground dealing day in, day out with a lot of these issues and with kids individually. You can either go sort of the corporate route and you can focus on metrics like test scores and metrics that... sort of education reformers, generally on the right, but also on the left have focused on for the last 20 or 30 years. Or you can join the woke crowd, right? And you can base your reforming efforts around these, what you called the ideological sense, right?

Inez Stepman:
The idea that discrimination must be happening, if we see disparate numbers that, that must mean discrimination rather than differing factors on the ground that national level statistics for example, can't really explain or pick up. So we'll get to the test scores versus other aspects of school cultures in a minute. But can you tell us a little bit more how that ideology about disparities and about discipline and about the purpose of discipline and education, how that impacted this particular story in Parkland? And also, is this something that parents across the country should be worried about? How much should parents be worried about what happened in Parkland being implemented in their schools?

Max Eden:
Yeah, parents should be extremely worried about what happened in Parkland being implemented in their schools because it has been. This Broward superintendent, Robert Runcie, had never been a teacher, had never been a principal, never actually had any human connection, human experience in the classroom. He got his start doing IT for Arne Duncan when Arne Duncan was the Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools. Arne Duncan becomes Obama's Secretary of Education. Robert Runcie becomes superintendent of the sixth largest school district in America and he comes with an idea.

Max Eden:
He looks at this data, the data show disparities by race, the data showed disparities by disability. And if you're not actually connected to the classroom and you see that, you get alarmed. You think, "Oh wow, something's really wrong here." And if you don't let yourself admit that these numbers reflect deeper inequities in society, you end up blaming the school. You end up blaming the teacher. And if the teachers are in fact at fault, then second-guessing their judgment would make perfect sense because we don't want them making biased judgments. So the ideology goes.

Max Eden:
So in order to prevent quote unquote 'institutional racism' that we believe accounts for these disparities, we have to fight against teacher subjective judgment. We have to inhibit them from doing what they think the right thing is to do. And so it's kind of that ideology that filters down to the insanities that we just talked about in Parkland. But it's also filtered all the way through American education, because shortly after Runcie launched this promise diversionary program, which was kind of the capstone of all of these leniency policies, his old boss, Arne Duncan, basically wrote these policies into a federal Dear Colleague letter and used it to pressure school districts across the country to follow suit.

Max Eden:
So hundreds of school districts serving millions of students were directly coerced by threat of losing federal funds to adopt these policies to kind of follow this ideological path. And millions more students did so because it was in the air. And unfortunately it's the kind of thing that becomes extremely difficult to argue against or to speak up against. Right? Because it's framed as an effort to fight racism. And so if you object to an effort to fight racism, you risk being labeled a defender of racism. And so you'll find teachers are basically silenced. Off the record, they'll say, "This student assaulted me and he was put right back into my classroom and this is wrong." But on the record they won't say that because on the record there are these kind of politically correct pieties about racial discrimination, ablest discrimination that serve to silence them after their judgment's already been totally overrun by the dictates of ideological bureaucrats.

Inez Stepman:
And so much of this story in your book and so much of what you exposed about Broward County and what happened, both leading up to and then after the tragic shooting and murder in Parkland, is the story of legitimate concerns of parents, of teachers being overwritten by ideological bureaucrats. I mean, you highlight so many stories of parents and teachers including which I... For the record, Max and I are friends and we've gone back a fair number of years, but I've actually never heard you talk about this before, including the fact that your own mom was a teacher in an inner-city school in Ohio. And decided that after these discipline reforms, she didn't feel supported by the administration to control her classroom and ended up moving to a different school.

Inez Stepman:
But you highlight so many of these stories both from the teachers and from parents who are just frustrated and they feel helpless. They feel like their judgment and their voice doesn't matter at all to these, either district level or even national pressures, that are going on in the education system. What can parents do now? I mean, you said that they should be worried and I agree with you. They should be worried about the policies that are being implemented in their schools. What tools do they have now to try to change this in their schools? Why aren't those tools sufficient? And what policies in education need to change in order to make their voices actually be heard and not be just sort of crushed under the wheels of ideological bureaucracy?

Max Eden:
Yeah, I mean, so the feedback loop kind of between teachers and the community has been severed. Right? Partly because of this thick ideological lens that's cast over it partly... Because sometimes teachers just feel like their jobs are at risk if they speak out about anything. So teachers aren't willing to go on record, but parents need to find out what's going on.

Max Eden:
So the first thing I would tell any parent is talk to your teacher, talk to your kid's teachers. Say, "Hey, I'm not going to say you said this to anybody, but is there a kid in my child's classroom who everybody knows shouldn't be there? Are kids just like able to assault other kids and bully other kids without any consequence?" And if there is, then it's incumbent on parents to be the voices of the teachers, be the voices for their students and go to their school board and demand that these policies, if they're causing these problems, be rolled back.

Max Eden:
Unfortunately we tried that in Broward County. Andy, other families kind of ran a slate of candidates to try to inform the community about what was really going on in their schools, how dangerous it was, all of the failures, the total non-apologetic, shoving off all responsibility nature of the school district. And they couldn't convince the voters to throw the bums out. Nothing really changed.

Max Eden:
So the first step is to try to get involved, talk to teachers, use the levers of the democratic process. The second step is, the step that I hope that policymakers a step higher can take to give parents more power, is school choice. Right? There is one incident recorded in the book, which was also recorded by the State Commission where a parent goes in to the principal's office and says, "I don't like the way that you dismissed the threat posed by this crazy student. You need to do something about him." And the principal allegedly said, "Well, if you don't like the way that I run the school, you can just leave." The only reason the principal can make that threat is because the parent can't. If the parent can credibly make that threat, then all of a sudden the administrator has a reason to actually keep the kids safe because you're going to lose the kids, you're going to lose the money if the kids aren't safe.

Max Eden:
So at the basic level for parents right now, I say, talk to your teachers, find out if the dynamics that are playing out in Parkland are also playing out in your schools. But for policymakers, I say, give teachers the power to have control and authority over their kids' educational career. Because everything from within the system is encouraging the people we trust with our kids to be irresponsible and only a countervailing pressure coming from parents can fix that. And I think at the end of the day, school choice is the greatest pressure that can be applied.

Inez Stepman:
I totally agree with that. And it sounds like what you're saying is that fundamentally incentives have to be aligned. I mean, there are millions of kids going back this week to school, in the last week or so as well. Going back to school, right, it's September. And so many of their parents, they might be aware of these. And unfortunately, as is the case in a lot of the stories that you tell in your book, parents only become aware of these kinds of policies when their kids are impacted by them. Right? When their kid, let's say, is hopefully not the victim of something as horrific and extreme and tragic as what happened in Parkland, but let's say that the impact is a little more common and a little less dramatic. Let's say that there's a violent bully that a parent is worried about and who harasses his or her child.

Inez Stepman:
I know you told a ton of these stories over time, both in your book and in your work, but I mean, what can parents do when administrators stonewall them and tell them that there's nothing they can do about repeated bullying, about safety? I mean, isn't this the most basic guarantee? I mean, forget about academics, right? Isn't this the most basic fundamental guarantee that the public school system should be giving to parents, the guarantee that their children will be safe while they're on campus?

Max Eden:
Yeah, I mean, and even when these things affect kids and parents kind of know. They don't really put their fingers square on it, right? Because if your kid's getting bullied, you don't quite connect that to a national policy shift. So the goal of this book is to explain to parents, this is what's happening. This is why it's happening. What Andy says at this point, when he started, he wanted to be the last father to ever lose a child in school. And now he says, "You know, I had no idea what was happening at my daughter's school. I don't want any other parent to honestly be able to make that excuse because we're telling you."

Max Eden:
So the first step is to get involved. It's just to find out. Right? That's why we wrote this book, is for parents to look at what happened in Parkland and take that to understand what's happening in their kids' schools. When they do, there's still a big question as to what does that do at the end of the day, right? I mean, to me this is a lot like the common core. It was nowhere at first, then it was forced everywhere, kind of under the radar. Then when parents finally understood it, they were up in arms. It caused a grassroots national rebellion. But there still wasn't that many clear ways to uproot it, because the policy levers were going on much above them.

Max Eden:
In this case, it really is the school board that decides these things. The principals are acting this way because they report to the superintendent. The superintendent is acting this way because he mostly reports to this kind of bureaucratic ideologue gestalts that I call a social justice industrial complex. The superintendent doesn't always feel beholden to school board members who in turn don't always feel beholden to parents.

Max Eden:
So I think the way to actually change any of this is for enough parents to understand what's going on in their kids' schools and basically come to school board meetings with pitchforks. I mean, outside of Broward, I don't think school board members mean to encourage these dynamics. They think that they're fighting for social justice and they just don't know and they won't know unless parents tell them and tell them in a very strong way,

Inez Stepman:
Where can our audience get informed for that fight with your and Andy's book? Where will it be available? When does it come out? Where can our audience get their hands on this absolutely critical information for back to school?

Max Eden:
It is available on Amazon, comes out September 10th. You could also visit Andy's website, americansforclass.org. But primarily, the book is on Amazon and we want every single parent across America to read it because the basic line is that Parkland was the most avoidable mass murder in American history and the policies that made it inevitable have come to your kids' school too. So, you need to understand what happened here to understand what's really happening with your kid in their classroom.

Inez Stepman:
Max, thanks for joining us today to talk about this heavy but incredibly important topic, especially as we've said with so many kids going back to school last week and the week before. And thank you to our audience for joining us for another episode of She Thinks with the Independent Women's Forum.

 


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