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City leaders address violence at youth football games

Mark Parker

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Photo courtesy of the St. Pete Lil' Devils, Facebook.

St. Petersburg city leaders, youth football representatives and the community came together Wednesday night to discuss creating a safer environment for the city’s youth football league following a recent incident.

Mayor Ken Welch hosted the community conversation at the Lake Vista Recreation Center, just a short distance from Lakewood High School’s football field. The meeting was in response to a large brawl two weekends ago at a game between the St. Petersburg Lil’ Devils and the Lakewood Jr. Spartans, when a group of teenagers began fighting outside the field before storming the fences and leaving those in attendance fearing what would happen next.

In addition to Welch, City Councilmembers Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Deborah Figgs-Sanders joined St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Jefferis and other city leaders at the two-hour meeting. Community leaders like Rev. Louis Murphy, pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, participated in the conversation alongside several youth football and cheerleading officials. Esther Matthews, local NAACP president, moderated the event.

Many offered impassioned suggestions on how to mitigate a growing problem plaguing the region and nation.

“We, the mayor, city council, the little league – we can change this by saying, ‘no, it’s going to be this way,’” said Murphy. “And if you don’t, if you don’t abide by what we’re saying, then you can’t participate.

“We’re going to bury somebody, and then everyone is going to be looking sad. Now is the time to change the culture.”

Rev.  Louis Murphy, pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Photo by Mark Parker.

Murphy added it was hard not to show his passion as the problem has been ongoing. He, like many others, noted many of the problems start at home and with parents and said the church and surrounding community needed to do more to impact the behavior of the city’s youth.

He also called the recent incident an opportunity for the mayor to create a model for other communities to follow.

Welch, who campaigned on a commitment to working closely with St. Petersburg’s youth, stood intently and took notes and names of speakers throughout the two-hour meeting. He said that was due to his plans for individual follow-up conversations and pledged that Wednesday night’s event was the first of many.

“This is not the last meeting, and we do have the resources,” said Welch. “And when you’re mayor, you’ve got some things you can just do.”

Funding and communicating the need for more money to address safety at games was a hot topic during the discussion.

One youth football representative noted the teams are nonprofit organizations and spend $3,000 to $4,000 weekly on security. She said they request eight police officers but receive two and pay for 12 additional private security guards from the organization’s slim budget.

Wesley Reed, president of the Lakewood Jr. Spartans, noted he must pay steep off-duty rates for city-provided officers and said he would “go broke” to ensure his kids and their families remain safe at football games.

Dexter Daughtry, president of the St. Pete Little Devils, said his organization paid $50 per hour for his police officers during the incident at Lakewood.

“That Wednesday, it went up to 60 dollars,” said Daughtry. “The fight wasn’t even finished yet.”

As a retired military veteran of 20 years, Daughtry said he felt safer during his tours in Iraq. 

Mayor Ken Welch (center) and local NAACP President Esther Matthews (right) listen to Parks and Recreation Director Mike Jefferis. Photo by Mark Parker.

Like many others, Daughtry said he could only control what happens within the football field’s confines. He also expressed his dismay that people now run towards chaos rather than away from the problem.

Reed and other coaches noted problems begin brewing long before the opening kickoff.

Attendees relayed that parents trash talk and place bets on social media leading up to the games. Reed said he was also unaware that several school incidents preceded the brawl.

“Those kids and people, they’re scheduled to come out there and fight and stuff,” he added.

Key takeaways from the event included increasing communication between schools, coaches, community organizations and city representatives.

An accompanying flier for the meeting stated that the city is working with regional partners in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties to address “increased tensions between community members that attend our city’s Little League games.”

The city also listed strategies it recently implemented to create a safer environment. These include mandatory security screenings before entrance; requiring a police and security presence after 5 p.m.; not allowing the oldest kids to play the last game of the day; and mandatory background screenings for all coaches, board members and volunteers. It also provided coaches and board members training through the Positive Coaches Alliance.

“My job every day there is to provide a safe environment for 355 kids,” said Reed. “I take pride in what we do.

“So, instead of getting your perception from the outside looking in and what people post on Facebook – come out there.”

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