Parkland parents start new lives across country, united by grief and anger
Their houses have been sold. The rooms that their daughters once occupied belong to someone else now. Their children’s lives are summarized in the wrongful death lawsuits filed in the aftermath of the worst school shooting in Florida history.
A year-and-a-half after 17 students and faculty were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, two grieving families with opposing political views on gun control but a shared sense of distrust for their old home have reached the same conclusion. South Florida isn’t home any more.
In December, the Pollacks climbed into their RV and drove across the nation to search for farm land in Oregon to build a new life. The Schentrups moved to Washington to give their daughter a second chance at a normal high school life, and to be closer to work.
They put the pain 3,200 miles in the rearview mirror, going about as far as they could in the continental United States. But getting away from the shooting in Parkland, they know now, will take much more than geography.
“Every second of my life I think of my beautiful daughter and that she’s not with me anymore. All I have is memories,” Andrew Pollack said. “I might have left the state, but I’m not done holding all the people accountable who failed my daughter.”
For Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, life after Parkland came down to the open road and months of driving in an attempt to leave his rage behind.
“I got my daughter killed living in a county like Broward,” Pollack said.
He doesn’t like the people there any more, he said. “Life’s short and I don’t want to be around them.”
So he and his wife, Julie Phillips Pollack, sold their Coral Springs home in December and got rid of most everything, except for family photos and other sentimental items he crammed into an 8-foot-by-8-foot storage unit. He doubts he’ll ever get rid of Meadow’s things, and he plans to ship them to his new home.
The couple knew they wanted to get out when they realized Broward was “unfixable,” he said. They hatched a plan to visit Oregon. They wanted to be close to Phillips’ family in Northern California, but Pollack refused to live in a state where politics are dominated by Democrats. Even moving to Oregon had a caveat, he said: “Stay out of Portland.”
Being in Parkland made him angry. The constant revelations in the press about the failures of law enforcement and school personnel, and the talk of gun control, compounded the grief.
“All the people with their Parkland Strong bumper stickers and shirts and signs and bracelets made me ill,” he said.
So he crisscrossed the country with Julie and their German shepherd, Sonny, visiting friends and state parks along the way. They drove up the east coast through North Carolina and West Virginia, then headed southwest to Tennessee and Kentucky and eventually Texas and Arizona. Even amid the dramatic landscape at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, the grief didn’t go away. It never will.
“My life’s never been the same. It won’t be the same,” he said. “I live it every single second.”
They finally stopped when they reached Eagle Point, Oregon, where Pollack found a 310-acre plot of farm land in a hilly area he described as being free from both bureaucrats and traffic lights.
He’s under contract to buy the land, where he plans to build a home, pick apples and maybe purchase some livestock. Pollack said he enjoys the cool evenings — and the apparent absence of liberals. While President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 brought rioters to the streets of Portland, he carried 28 of Oregon’s 36 counties and won over the rural parts of the state. Jackson County, to which Eagle Point belongs, was more evenly split, with Trump winning 49 percent of the vote.
“It just cleanses my soul being away from Democrats,” Pollack said.
Pollack’s anger these days is aimed — from afar — mostly toward Broward County, where half of registered voters are Democrats, which means it has the highest concentration of Democrats in Florida.
Under the leadership of a Democratic county sheriff, who modified active-shooter protocol to give deputies discretion about when to confront shooters, an armed school resource officer didn’t intervene during the shooting that resulted in Meadow Pollack’s death.
A school security guard who saw the gunman enter campus failed to confront him or call a Code Red alert to notify the students and teachers sitting in their classrooms. Responding deputies didn’t immediately enter the school. The officer, the security guard and the Broward sheriff were removed from their positions for the botched response.
Pollack said gun control efforts that followed the shooting were too narrowly focused on restricting the use of guns and wouldn’t have stopped the man charged in the shootings, Nikolas Cruz, from buying his gun legally. A bill passed by the Florida Legislature post-Parkland did raise the age for rifle purchases to 21.
Pollack also said he thinks activists from the March for Our Lives group that mobilized tens of thousands of protesters in the weeks after the shooting should focus on more achievable goals, like securing schools.
Cruz had been a discipline problem at Marjory Stoneman Douglas when he attended school there in 2016 and 2017. He was disciplined for fighting, profanity and an assault, and several students reported stalking and violent threats.
He posted photos of his growing arsenal of weapons on social media, and a security guard was assigned to search him every day for weapons.
Diagnosed with autism, Cruz was considered a special-education student and was not legally allowed to be expelled.
A guidance counselor at Stoneman Douglas became worried that Cruz wanted to buy a gun. Cruz told a classmate he ingested gasoline. He cut himself with a pencil sharpener and wrote the word “kill” in a school notebook.
Despite this, he was never involuntarily committed for psychiatric treatment, which could have prevented him from buying the assault-style rifle he would eventually use to carry out the school shooting.
Pollack blamed a culture of leniency in the school system that let “dangerous” kids get away with misconduct that would otherwise be punished more forcefully.
“It’s just so nice to be out of there, and to be away from those Democrats in Broward who are sick,” he said. “There’s just a magnitude of incompetence with no accountability.”
He isn’t alone in his frustration.
North of the Oregon state line, just outside Seattle, former Broward school principal April Schentrup blames her old school district for not acting on what she calls red flags raised by Cruz’s actions as a student.
And she said the district failed her personally. Some members of the school board didn’t send their condolences to her. Promises for change rang hollow, and the district focused too much on healing the community rather than fixing the problems that led to the shooting, she said.
“I didn’t feel I was healing well being there,” she said. “It was too personal for me.”
Schentrup, who started working for the district in 1998 as a teacher, said families trusted the school administration and the district to keep their children safe. She was “baffled” to learn about Cruz’s past disciplinary problems at the school and the way he fell through the cracks.
The school should have told the district that Cruz didn’t belong there, she said, adding that the entire situation was “horribly handled.”
“It was obvious there were no checks in place there,” she said. “For six years, they never had to do a lock-down drill.”
Carmen Schentrup was killed one day before it was announced she had been chosen as a National Merit Scholarship Finalist. She was a talented musician and singer who made her family laugh with jokes.
After taking time off to grieve her loss, Schentrup was appointed as the district’s new director of school safety and security in June 2018.
But she said her proposals to better secure schools went largely ignored. The district dragged its feet on safety tasks she considered crucial and simple, such as establishing an incident-reporting app for students and faculty, she said.
In October, she took medical leave for the remainder of the school year, using her accrued sick time. That same month, the Schentrups moved to Seattle. In February, they sold their Parkland home.
Last June, the district decided not to reappoint her to the position, and as of July 1, she no longer works for the district. She said she likely wouldn’t have moved back even if they wanted her.
“I needed change. We needed a change,” she said. “Sometimes changes like this give you a different perspective.”
There have been some changes at the school district spurred by the parents of children who died in the shooting. The Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel, was removed from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis. He also called for a grand jury to investigate school safety measures. The Florida Legislature passed a law requiring armed guards at every school in the state and improving the access of mental health services for students.
And the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Scott last year. It empowered local sheriffs — at the discretion of county school districts — to establish a Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program to train school employees as armed guards and required districts to station one armed guard at each school. Feis, a 37-year-old assistant football coach, was killed in the shooting.
The legislation mandated that districts create threat assessment teams that involve police outreach, utilize incident-reporting smart phone apps at schools and submit accurate crime and safety reports to the state.
But in a grand jury interim report released in July, the grand jury cited “evidence of noncompliance” with the MSD bill among certain school districts, though the names of the specific districts were not made public.
Schentrup said she didn’t feel comfortable sending her younger daughter, 15-year-old Evelyn, to Stoneman Douglas after seeing how the district “dragged its feet” in handling security issues after the shooting.
“My main reason for leaving was I didn’t feel I could keep my remaining daughter, Evelyn, safe at MSD,” Schentrup said. “I saw how the district had a lack of urgency with any safety recommendations I made or others made.”
Her husband, Phil, who works for a technology company based in Seattle, already was making frequent business trips there so the Pacific Northwest seemed the logical destination.
“It was hard to heal when all of us were kind of apart,” she said.
Evelyn was home-schooled at first but in September, she’ll enroll at her new high school. Schentrup said she has met with the school counselor and school safety officials, and offered suggestions to better secure that school.
She feels the school has more checks and balances that she thinks will keep the students safe. If Evelyn is happy at school, Schentrup will be, too — although she acknowledges she’ll probably never have full peace of mind.
“There’s always that fear in the back of my head,” she said.
Despite the differing political stances from the two families in the wake of the shooting — Schentrup advocates for stricter gun laws and Pollack for school hardening — Pollack said Schentrup’s move inspired his own.
He said he now thinks any parent in Broward should think about moving. The school district, he says, shouldn’t be trusted with the lives of children.
Pollack, a supporter of President Donald Trump and a critic of the March for Our Lives teens, said his deep-seated concern about Broward’s direction isn’t a political issue. He has said that, while he is conservative, he feels he belongs to what he calls the “human party.”
Pollack became the target of internet trolling after a reporter posted a photo of him on Twitter wearing a Trump shirt while trying to locate his daughter after the shooting.
He became increasingly politically active, appearing on national television at a White House listening session with Trump and then in a campaign advertisement for Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott. He campaigned for DeSantis, a Republican, and his son Hunter interned with Scott and DeSantis.
His move hasn’t stalled his activism, he said.
He co-authored a book about the shooting, titled “Why Meadow Died,” which is scheduled to come out Sept. 10. He founded the nonprofit group Americans for Children’s Lives and School Safety, which proposes an eight-point plan to prevent school shootings. It includes mental health and school hardening aspects, but doesn’t mention gun control.
Schentrup and her husband have a very different focus for their activism. They started a memorial fund to raise money for “common sense gun reform.” She has met with legislators in Washington, D.C., several times since the shooting as a part of her group, Stand with Parkland. But gun control — as crucial as she thinks it is — is just one piece of the puzzle, she said. Security measures and increased mental health services are also part of the solution.
“One of those things could have hopefully prevented what happened to our families, whether it’s keeping the gates locked that day or [the shooter] purchasing an assault rifle at 18,” she said. “Just like people keep their homes locked, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to have a gun.”
Pollack and Schentrup agree on one thing at least: keeping kids safe shouldn’t be partisan.
“It’s not a Republican or a Democrat thing — it’s a safety thing,” Pollack said.
Pollack and the Schentrups have filed civil lawsuits against former MSD school monitor Andrew Medina, Peterson, the BSO and the Broward school board. Schentrup has also sued the FBI for bungling tips it received about Cruz.
“I’m not done with these people. I’m not gonna let them wipe their hands just because I don’t live there,” Pollack said.
A photo taken outside Schentrup’s wooden split-level home, which sits on a hill near a lake, clearly shows she’s not in South Florida anymore. But she’s in Broward, in her mind.
It’s in the country music songs she plays, hearing her daughter’s voice singing along. It’s in the photographs on her mantle, reminders of her daughter’s smile and kindness. And it’s in the stories she shares with the only people who know how she feels: other parents who lost their children in Parkland.
“There are times where they were kind of like our support group,” she said. “Even though we talk every day, it’s not the same as being there. We miss that.”
Pollack said he is also part of a group chat with some of the parents who lost children in the shooting. When he finishes building his home in Oregon, he plans to invite the Schentrups for a visit.
“We all have a bond,” he said. “We had our kids murdered.”