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Editorial: Avoiding a repeat of fair rampage

STATE FAIR and Hillsborough officials were right to begin looking immediately into how to prevent a repeat of the stampeding violence that marred the weekend opening of the Florida State Fair. Hundreds of teenage students rampaged through the midway — plowing over guests, fighting, stealing from vendors and battling with police. State and local officials need to reconsider student day at the fair, look at requiring that children be supervised and other reforms for the benefit of public safety.

The Sheriff's Office said that as many as 200 teenagers stampeded through the midway after sunset Friday, the evening of the annual "Student Day," when Hillsborough students are given the day off and free fair admission. The 200 deputies working off-duty for the fair authority called for backups, and another 60 to 70 deputies were pulled in from the street. Deputies ejected 99 people and arrested 12 others, nearly all 17 years old or younger. The sheriff asked the fair to shut down early. And an eighth-grader who was ejected, 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III, was killed later that night while crossing Interstate 4, on the northern perimeter of the fairgrounds.

Now the question is how to keep the chaos from happening again. An outright ban on "Student Day" might take the steam away from first Friday. But it punishes every student for the actions of a few, and it could keep students who participate in the fair's rich history of showcasing livestock and agriculture from enjoying a valuable learning experience. Among the options the school district should consider is working with the fair authority to stagger the passes over several days. Starting immediately, the fair ordered that any student under 18 must be accompanied by an adult after 7 p.m. for the duration of this year's fair.

The school district should commit to reaching out to parents to urge them to set expectations for responsible behavior. Parents also need to manage their children's conduct and whereabouts. The fair authority should explore changing the fair's layout to improve pedestrian flow.

Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee took an encouraging step Tuesday. Writing to the NAACP, local black leaders and the U.S. Justice Department, Gee said he intended to find a "holistic approach" to maintaining order at the fair. Citing his concern that the "overwhelming number" of those arrested or ejected were African-American, Gee asked these groups to help formulate a public education campaign. This is a community-building strategy that could bring positive results far beyond the fairgrounds.

Editorial: Avoiding a repeat of fair rampage 02/11/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 5:32pm]
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