TAMPA — Some blamed the Sheriff's Office, some blamed the schools. Many blamed the parents of misbehaving youths. Others said Tampa's churches need to be more involved.
All agreed that mass chaos at the Florida State Fair cannot happen again.
About 100 people gathered at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church on Tuesday evening to learn more about the Feb. 7 scene at the fair from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Col. Jim Previtera described groups of more than 100 teens stampeding through the fair, breaking into fights and terrifying vendors.
He had videos that he said would speak for themselves. They would show the chaos, which prompted deputies to eject 99 people, arrest 12 and close the fair early on its first Friday, a free day for Hillsborough students.
But most clips, gathered off cellphone cameras, showed children laughing and running. One depicted a blurry fight. If they were misbehaving, the children did not appear violent in most of the footage. Some in the crowd at Tuesday's meeting grew restless.
"They're kids!" said Bridgette Welch, 44, who wondered if deputies were exaggerating.
Afterward, 17-year-old Brianna Senter, a senior at Blake High School, and her brother, 14-year-old Letore' Senter, who attends Progress Village Middle Magnet School, said deputies were not overstating the problems.
Letore' saw a boy knocked down and stomped. The boy was bleeding from the head. Brianna saw students from rival schools fight each other. Girls used their umbrellas.
"I was with my friend, just walking, and 100 to 150 people would run by and knock you over," she said.
The Sheriff's Office asked for input from leaders in the African-American community because most of the youths involved were black girls and boys. Many at Tuesday's meeting pledged to work with deputies.
After opening remarks by several public officials, audience members who wanted to talk got one minute to share his or her ideas and ask questions. Several said many young people often don't respect law enforcement because they don't see police and sheriff's deputies as fair to minorities. One man said the Sheriff's Office was negligent when it left teens unsupervised, outside the fair's gates after being ejected.
Andrew Joseph III, a 14-year-old thrown out of the fair that first Friday, was hit and killed by a sport utility vehicle while he tried to walk across Interstate 4 about three hours later. Life Malcolm plans to write about the meeting for the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a twice-weekly newspaper that caters to Hillsborough's African-American community. He said people need to be accountable for Andrew's life.
"His parents dropped him off in a place where he was safe, and the Sheriff's Office removed him," Malcolm said.
Many attendees spent their 60 seconds talking about the "lack of respect" in today's children, of parenting problems and the issues that result when parents feel like they can't spank their kids for fear of being charged with child abuse.
Tangible ideas for change were few, but officials promised it was the first of many meetings. The NAACP is already planning another for Thursday evening at the Ambassadors of Christ Inc. Temple of Prayer at 704 E Humphrey St. in Tampa.
Hillsborough NAACP president Carolyn Hepburn Collins expects local teens to speak first at that meeting. Several people said Tuesday that it is important to involve high school students in the search for a solution.
Still, a few attendees already had ideas:
The Senter children's mother, Elise Senter, who teaches middle school, suggested making Student Day at the fair a privilege for well-behaved students. Most Hillsborough students get the first Friday of the fair off school, and admission is free. Such a policy would limit attendance and likely ban those more likely to cause trouble, she said.
Fred Hearns, 65, said the fair should include more activities, shows and exhibits that would appeal to black youths — that would draw them in and entertain them. The fair has Cracker Country, he said, why not a step competition, or an American Idol-like event?
The Sheriff's Office plans to hold more meetings. The agency hopes to have plans in place by May.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.