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Teen's death should prompt community action

When asked about the possibility of enduring life or death military situations in the Middle East, King High senior and Air Force enlistee Teresa Sheppard offered a response that first seemed more rationalization than reality.

"That stuff could happen anywhere," Sheppard said a week ago. "I could be walking down the street, and the same thing could happen here that happens there."

Now her words strike me as prophetic. And sad. And senseless. The fact you could draw any meaningful parallel between war-torn nations and our idyllic suburban neighborhoods leaves me bewildered.

No, we don't live in a combat zone, but Sunday's shooting death of 18-year-old Devante Dallas makes us realize tragic violence looms larger in the lives of our teens every day. Guns have become more accessible, anger has become palpable and life has become more precious. This space was supposed to be filled with words about high school seniors who have chosen to enlist in the military. It was supposed to be about young men and women willing to lay their lives on the line in some faraway land.

Instead it's about Dallas, a young man who lost his life not in the desert-covered terrain of Afghanistan or Iraq, but in a Riverview pasture where the grass is supposed to be greener.

A life is shattered, a family grieves and parents wonder if their child will be next.

I wonder how we will respond.

We sweep this under the rug at our own peril. We dismiss it as an aberration only if we're comfortable with our teens' simple Saturday night outings turning into weekend shoot-outs.

Most of all, we make a grave error if we see this only through the lens of race. Some will note both the victim and the alleged perpetrator, 18-year-old Khayri McCray, are African-American and label it as another sign of dysfunction among blacks.

Color it if you will, but that doesn't make Dallas' life any less valuable or the possibility of a white teen dying at the next party any less likely.

The problems of the black community are the problems of the whole community. Just like Tampa businesses expand to Brandon, so too will its more troubling aspects if we stand idle.

Where do we start? With the kids, of course. They have to be part of the solution because they best understand what they need. Maybe we create a youth council where teens can craft solutions. Maybe we foster an environment where they can talk about consequences.

They have to recognize the simple science: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes the reaction is wholly exaggerated and life-altering.

It's a difficult message to get across to the invincible teen. Never in my younger years did I even imagine firing a gun into a crowd. But I did engage in reckless behaviors that endangered myself, if not others.

Somewhere along the way, all the lectures from my parents, all the warnings from my teachers — and maybe even the time Sister Sylvia grabbed my cheek and shook me like a bobble head — made me realize I had to give thought to my future before doing something stupid.

Now we need to shake this generation — or get them to shake themselves and recognize the impact of their decisions. They shouldn't live in fear, but they have to live with awareness.

As adults, perhaps we can help with some restrictions. The families that organized the party at the Winthrop Barn Theatre took precautions to heighten safety — including bringing on fathers to chaperone and using a metal-detecting wand to keep gun-toting partiers outside. They're not to blame.

But as we move forward, maybe we should require teen parties to employ an off-duty officer, cap attendance at 150 and end at midnight. Government intrusion? Maybe, but I'll trade a little interference for saving lives.

Ultimately, I can't pretend to have all or even any of the necessary answers. I'm not sure anyone does.

What I do know is that this isn't an absent-hearted community that loses a young person without sharing the pain. You see that when people line the streets as one of those funeral processions carrying a fallen soldier from MacDill Air Force Base to his final resting place in east Hillsborough.

Devante Dallas' coffin won't be draped with a U.S. flag, but his death could represent something nearly as noble if we respond in a positive way.

We need to salute his memory by not letting this problem fester.

In the interim, I ask my own two teenage sons just one favor:

Stay alive.

That's all I'm saying.

Teen's death should prompt community action 05/27/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:48pm]
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