Community leaders, school officials, the Sheriff’s Office and Florida State Fair representatives should be commended for putting reasonable rules in place that will prevent a repeat of the violence that erupted during last year’s Student Day at the fair.
The annual day allows free entry for students and had become a destination for troublemakers looking to disrupt the fun on the midway with mindless acts of random violence. Last year, hundreds of students stormed the midway after 6 p.m. and began terrorizing patrons in a mob act known as “wilding.”
When the dust cleared, countless patrons had been pushed to the ground or put in fear of their safety, and deputies had arrested a dozen students and ejected 99 others. Tragically, one of the students ejected died after being struck by a car while trying to cross Interstate 4 near the fairgrounds after dark.
Community leaders gathered with law enforcement afterward to find a solution to the violence. Those meetings resulted in new rules approved by the Fair Authority and discussed Wednesday by Hillsborough County School Board members, who agreed to keep the annual Student Day at the fair on the school calendar.
Under the new rules, free admission won’t be allowed for anyone under 18 who isn’t accompanied by an adult, and middle school and high school students will be required to show school ID badges before being granted admission. Security is being beefed up with surveillance cameras. Deputies will be joined on patrol by school resource officers, school athletic coaches and members of community organizations such as the NAACP. A command center will be established within the fairground to monitor the surveillance cameras and coordinate a response to any trouble.
And students caught acting inappropriately will be detained by security until a parent arrives to take them home.
In the past, disruptive students were kicked out of the fairgrounds without a parent being there to pick them up. The 14-year-old student who died crossing I-4 had been ejected without a parent being there. “It’s terrible whenever a young person leaves us,” Fair Authority Executive Director Charles Pesano said. “We don’t want it to happen again.”
Some school board members raised realistic concerns that the requirement a parent accompany anyone under 18 might discourage some students from attending. But it’s better to start with a strict set of rules that are likely to stop the violence before it can begin. Law enforcement and fair officials can monitor the new Student Day rules when the fair comes to town next February and make adjustments going forward.
The scope of the violence last year was deplorable and cast a pall over what had been a successful run for the annual fair. An easy way out would have been the elimination of Student Day. But that would have punished well-behaved students.
The rules now in place offer a free day at the fair without any fears, like it should be.