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Two years after Andrew Joseph III, 14, died outside the Florida State Fair, his parents' fight is just starting

A mural at E St. Clair Street and N Nebraska Avenue in Tampa honors the memory of Andrew Joseph III.
Published Feb. 5, 2016

RIVERVIEW — Andrew Joseph III hung his jacket on a wall hook in the parlor of his family's home two years ago. It has not been touched since. His mother, Deanna Joseph, doesn't want to disturb the memory of her boy.

Andrew Joseph Jr. and his wife, Deanna, have worked hard to keep the memory of their son alive, ever since the 14-year-old was ejected from the Florida State Fair on Student Day in 2014 and died trying to cross Interstate 4.

This week marks the second anniversary of his death, and the family says their fight is just starting. Grief steers their mission to improve the safety of children at the fair.

They plan to stage a protest today of the fair's annual Student Day, saying the safety measures implemented since their boy died are still not enough. This week they also filed their long-planned wrongful-death lawsuit against the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, the Florida State Fair Authority and the Hillsborough County School District.

That's just the start of a busy week the Josephs, who also planned a panel discussion, a peace walk, remembrance ball and prayer service in honor of their son's memory.

"We needed to amplify," said Deanna Joseph, 45. "We needed to somehow wake Tampa up."

The Josephs say they don't want other families to lose a child because of the fair.

The school district gives students the day off and free passes to attend Student Day at the fair. As a result, tens of thousands pack into the fair each Student Day, and that has resulted in unruliness. In 2014, it led to violence. Deputies arrested 12 people and ejected 99 others. Andrew Joseph III was one of those ejected.

But the deputies who removed teens from the fair did not monitor them, contact their parents or ensure they returned home safely, the Josephs said.

Deputies dropped Andrew Joseph III 2 miles from the fair. The 14-year-old was killed trying to cross I-4 to return to the fairgrounds to meet his ride, according to the lawsuit.

The Josephs have criticized the Sheriff's Office, the school district and the fair ever since for failing to watch out for their son.

"You can't just kidnap people's children and leave them on the side of the highway," Deanna Joseph said.

In 2015, Student Day's rules were changed. Deputies would have to contact the parents or guardians of any juveniles who get kicked out. The students are now held in the fairground's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre under supervision. If deputies can't find an adult to come get the student, the child would then be taken to the county's children services facility on Clay Magnum Lane. Students must also be with an adult after 6 p.m.

That's still not enough for Andrew Joseph Jr., 44. He said as long as the fair serves alcohol and allows concealed-carry permit holders to bring in guns, it's still not a safe place for children.

Deanna Joseph said there would be less potential for chaos if students were given a free ticket to use any day of the fair, not just Student Day. She'd also like to see permission slips sent home so that parents sign off before students get tickets to the fair. They could rebrand it "Family Day," she said.

"We're setting up so many of these other families to be in our position," she said.

But while the Josephs say they want to make the fair safer, they also want to hold responsible those who they believe contributed to their son's death.

That's why on Wednesday they filed a federal lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, the school district and the fair alleging they're responsible for the death of their son. It also alleges that their son was falsely arrested, taken into custody without probable cause.

The lawsuit dived into the history of Student Day. It says that as early as 1953, it was known as "Negro Day." And back in 2014, most of the students who were ejected were black.

"Student Day has had a continuous history of civil rights abuses," the suit alleges, claiming that it targets "African-American students and juveniles for arrest, ejection and unjustified law enforcement intervention."

The school district and fair authority declined to comment on the lawsuit. A sheriff's spokeswoman said the agency has yet to receive the lawsuit.

Hillsborough sheriff's Maj. Sankar Montoute on Thursday detailed all the measures authorities are taking to keep the fair safe this year. There will be 300 security cameras, mobile security towers and plenty of deputies in uniforms and in civilian clothing. There were no major issues at the fair last year, he said, and he expects the same this year.

The protest is set to start at 1 p.m. near the fairgrounds entrance on U.S. 301, in front of the arches. The Josephs said they'll continue fighting to keep students safe at the fair, and make sure deputies keep their vow to "protect and serve."

They don't believe that happened the night their son died.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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