Matthew Perez is tall and thin, and speaks softly. He serves as photo editor of Sunlake High School's yearbook, the Talon, and is on the swim team and prom committee. He scored more than 1,000 on the SAT — when he was in seventh grade.
"Do I look like a fighter to you?" the 17-year-old responds when asked if he was looking for a brawl the night of Dec. 6.
Two middle-school girls had feuded that day through text messages and decided to meet behind the Land O'Lakes Library to settle their differences. Matt accompanied one of the girls, a 13-year-old he described as being "like a little sister," to make sure nothing got out of hand.
But the other girl brought a group of young men. One of them brought a bat.
Now Matthew needs surgery to repair a broken nose and remove crushed cheekbone fragments that could rob him of sight in his left eye if not treated. A couple of bottom teeth also were broken. A college-age girl who went with them suffered a concussion and broken arm. She still can't remember the incident and had to temporarily drop out of culinary school.
Experts say that while they haven't necessarily noticed an escalation in the number of violent incidents among students in Pasco, they do know that technology creates an environment ripe for them to develop.
"Texting can empower a person to say things that they wouldn't say to someone else face-to-face," said Molly Blair, director of the student services for the Pasco County School District. "Today's students face a lot more challenges, and we need to teach them to be good citizens online."
Sheriff's deputies are still sorting out the details of the incident that put Matthew and friend Tiffany Kephart, 20, in the hospital. The 13-year-old girl, whom the Times is not naming, was not injured. No one has been charged.
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said detectives aren't ready to comment or release any reports.
"The sheriff's deputy who came up there told me it might be a mutual fray," said Matthew's mother, Kathleen Perez. "I can't believe that."
Matthew's mom and grandmother both told Matt to stay home that night. He went anyway. He took out the garbage and said he'd be back "in a few minutes."
"He wouldn't have gone up there if I hadn't been away," said Allen McVay, Kathleen's longtime fiance and Matthew's unofficial step-dad. McVay, who owns a private security firm, was working out of town overnight.
Matt said he was afraid his 13-year-old friend would go to the confrontation alone. Kephart, a longtime friend and recent graduate of Wiregrass Ranch High School, drove them to the vacant lot behind the recreation center and the Pasco County Library on Collier Parkway shortly before 8:30 p.m. Dec. 6.
When they got there, Matt said, four to eight young men were standing with the middle schooler in the pitch-dark field.
"Why are you bringing a bat to a girl fight?" Tiffany asked the group.
The bat wielding young man walked up.
"Do you want to fight?" the young man asked.
"Do I look like it?" replied Matthew, who was unarmed.
"Then he started whaling on me," Matthew said.
When it finally stopped, he ran to the basketball courts for help. The group scattered. Matthew called his mom.
"He wouldn't let me see his face," she said. "All I saw was blood running down his arm."
Matthew was rushed to St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa, where he spent two days.
At Sunlake, word spread quickly.
Students, including some Matthew didn't even know, filled his Facebook page with wishes for a quick recovery. A crowd of visitors streamed into his hospital room.
Teachers arranged for Matthew to make up his mid-term exams. A school nurse asked what could be done to help.
Matthew's swelling has gone down, but he still suffers headaches. His left eye looks bloodshot and bigger than his right. Exposed nerves make the broken teeth hurt.
After weeks of trying to find a surgeon who will accept his insurance, Matthew is tentatively scheduled next week to have the broken cheek repaired. The broken nose will have to wait until the family can find an ear nose and throat specialist who will accept his insurance.
As punishment for disobedience, Matthew is grounded. No Facebook, no smart phone for a month.
He hasn't griped about it. He realizes he's lucky. McVay told him the bat could have easily been a knife or gun.
"I've learned to listen to my parents," Matthew said. "And not to put myself in a situation I'm unsure of."