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Student Day chaos prompts changes at Florida State Fair

— Local students will notice some differences during the free Student Day at the Florida State Fair next year.

For starters, anyone younger than 18 will not be admitted for free after 6 p.m. without an adult. All day long, middle- and high-schoolers will be required to show school ID badges to get in. Surveillance cameras will monitor the fairgrounds, and kids who behave inappropriately will be detained until a parent comes to get them — instead of being kicked out of the fair.

The new rules and procedures were compiled after meetings with law enforcement, fair and school officials and community members in response to the chaos that erupted after 6 p.m. at this year’s Student Day. Throngs of young people stampeded through the fairgrounds in a practice called “wilding.”

The melee ended with a dozen arrests and the ejection of 99 young people. One of them, 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III, was struck and killed by a vehicle as he tried to run across nearby Interstate 4.

The boy’s father, Andrew Joseph Jr., spoke about the need for a safer Student Day at a Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday. He suggested the school district call it “Family Day” and make free admission rewards-based.

“My child is dead,” he said. “This is real life. Change the name, include the parents and make it a reward system.”

The fair is still about eight months away — it starts on Feb. 5, 2015 — but the changes were approved last month by the Florida State Fair Authority board of directors.

The free Student Day hasn’t been renamed, but fair authority Executive Director Charles Pesano said the changes are in line with what Joseph is seeking — more of a family atmosphere.

The main goal is to bring more parents, families and adults to Student Day, which typically draws close to 80,000 people, Pesano said.

“It’s terrible whenever a young person leaves us,” Pesano said. “We don’t want it to happen again.”

Other changes include placing school resource officers and deputies at the fairgrounds to spot any potential behavior problems, with help from volunteer school leaders like coaches, administrators and members of community organizations like the NAACP and Pastors on Patrol.

“I’m a dad and I know that kids will usually behave better if they’ve got proper supervision,” Pesano said. “Through all these different methods, we’re hoping enough parents and adults will come to make a difference.”

Also, a central “interagency command center” will be set up inside the fairgrounds for emergency responders, fair officials and school officials to monitor surveillance footage and meet if problems arise.

In the months leading up to the fair, school officials will talk to students and parents about being on their best behavior at Student Day.

“We realize this is not going to stop everything, but this is going to slow down who comes to the fair with one of these tickets unauthorized and give a chance to see who’s coming in,” said Lewis Brinson, the school district’s assistant superintendent for administration. “We can’t let a few spoil this event for all the kids who go to the fair.”

School board member Cindy Stuart said she hopes fair officials consider allowing kids to use their free tickets on the Thursday night the fair opens. Stuart said she welcomes the increased presence of school resource officers and deputies, but she worries that only letting children in with an adult on Friday night won’t go over well.

“We have good students who come to the fair who are of driving age and shouldn’t have to bring an adult with them,” she said. “We are punishing a whole lot of people for the bad behavior of a few. When I have to tell my 16-year-old daughter that she has to bring her mommy with her to the fair, she’s not going to be happy.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, a member of the fair authority board, has held community meetings to get feedback on how to improve Student Day. Now that there is a plan for next year, he hopes to get together with the sheriff’s office and community leaders to see what else can be done.

“We cannot have these incidents going on,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we possibly can.”

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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