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Remark in Spanish sparked center riot

LARGO - A remark in Spanish apparently triggered Monday's riot in Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center, the worst in the institution's 22-year history. Pinellas County Sheriff's deputies, interviewing participants in the melee, were trying to determine Tuesday whether the mysterious Spanish statement was part of a plan by several youths to start the fight, spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said.

And she said, "We are trying to determine just exactly what was said in Spanish."

The brawl left nine boys with minor injuries and 30 charged with felony rioting.

The 30 included a 12-year-old who also faces two counts of aggravated battery for swinging crutches during the riot, Pasha said.

One crutch wound up broken in half, she said.

Eleven counselors were injured in the fighting. They included Daniel Fiorella, 48, who was recuperating Tuesday from a broken cheekbone, a broken nose and two black eyes.

The 30 boys, ages 12 to 17, were confined individually in the maximum security section of the Pinellas County Jail Monday night, then were moved back to the juvenile detention center Tuesday, officials said.

Pasha said the fighting was touched off around 9:30 p.m. Monday when a group of about 60 boys were returning from a nightly chapel service to a recreation room, where some 30 more already were watching television.

She said the boy who uttered something in Spanish might not have said it to anybody in particular. However, another kid hit him because of the remark. Then the brawl erupted with 30 combatants and 62 more nearby.

While at least one parent of a teen-ager at the center said the brawl was the result of racial tension between whites and blacks, Pasha said that hadn't been confirmed. All 30 boys accused of fighting are black, she said.

Bill Gandy, of the state department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), which runs the center, said he doubted a racial aspect. "We can't substantiate that."

Gandy said the first two participants were a black youth and a Puerto Rican youth.

The 30 arrested juveniles, who were brought back to the center Tuesday afternoon, were to be locked in their cells until staff members are sure the boys will peacefully socialize with the rest of the center's population, Gandy said.

HRS officials have said the current facility is too small and its design is obsolete. Juveniles are lumped together in cramped quarters and that leads to friction, Gandy said.

"In terms of the numbers involved, this was the worst," Gandy said.

"Part of it is our inability to separate them and classify them," Gandy said. "When that whole thing broke out in the TV room they were all there."

Preliminary plans for a new facility call for a $5.5-million, 120-bed facility. Unlike the current building, the new center would be divided into sections and would give staff members the ability to separate aggressive and violent juveniles.

The Legislature is to consider the plan during its next session this spring.