TAMPA — Following Friday night’s mob-like behavior of hundreds of students at the Florida State Fair, a new policy has gone into effect limiting the times when young people may attend the event unsupervised.
Students from Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota and Manatee counties still will get free admission Monday — it is students day for those counties, as well as the last day of the fair — but if they are under age 18 they must be accompanied by an adult after 7 p.m.
The new policy is only the latest reverberation from the melee at the fair.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller has called a meeting next week to address the incident. He said he has invited Sheriff David Gee and other elected officials, plus members of the NAACP, Pastor on Patrol and other groups that work with black youth.
“I want to hear what Sheriff Gee’s recommendations are and what the school district’s recommendations are to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,” Miller said.
The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church, 1006 W. Cypress St.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has added additional security for the duration of the fair, both visible to the public and obscured, said Col. Jim Previtera. Deputies will be posted in elevated watch towers and in high-traffic areas of the fairgrounds, especially during the weekend and on other days organizers expect large crowds, he said.
Sheriff’s deputies, numbering almost 200, said they were overwhelmed by a throng of young people stampeding through the fairgrounds — a practice known as wilding — after 6 p.m. Friday. The midway closed early because of the chaos, after deputies made a dozen arrests and ejected 99 others for disorderly conduct.
For the remainder of the fair, deputies will have a zero-tolerance policy for the kind of behavior exhibited Friday night, Previtera said. Anyone who comes to the fair with the intention of making trouble will find themselves in the back of a police car on their way to jail, he said.
“We’ve tried to eject people as an alternative to arresting people, especially juveniles,” Previtera said. “But based on the experience of Friday night, we’re going to arrest and we’re going to arrest early.”
Apparently “wilding” is an underground tradition on the first Friday night of the state fair, when Hillsborough students are admitted free and given the day off from school.
“We will continue to work with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to help provide a safe, family-friendly environment at the Florida State Fair,” Charles Pesano, executive director of the State Fair Authority, said in a statement.
Additional security also will be in place at the upcoming Strawberry Festival in Plant City, said Paul Davis, general manager of the event.
He and staff will meet with law enforcement officials before the festival, which runs Feb. 27 to March 9.
The Strawberry Festival’s student days are held Saturdays, so young people usually are accompanied by parents, Davis said. But after what happened at the state fair, organizers will be cautious.
“It’s something that can happen anywhere so you have to remain vigilant and keep it from happening,” Davis said.
Among those ejected from the fair on Friday was 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III, who three hours later was killed by a vehicle as he tried to run across nearby Interstate 4. Family and friends will hold a prayer vigil for him at 7 p.m. today at the Brandon Ravens stadium, 5417 Providence Road.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story had a different day for the vigil.