In Hillsborough, community groups work for solutions to youth gun violence

The late-night shooting in Ybor City over Halloween weekend that killed two and wounded 16 is another jarring reminder of the epidemic of youth gun violence.

A 14-year-old teen, who had a gun in the waistband of his pants, was killed in the shooting. Tampa police have arrested another 14-year-old teen on charges of a minor in possession of a weapon in connection with the shooting incident, along with the 22-year-old who has been charged with two counts of second-degree murder.

The Ybor shooting follows a September shooting in which police arrested a 13-year-old for shooting a 15-year-old as he walked down the median of North Nebraska Avenue. In that incident, the 15-year-old returned fire. Before that, in June, a 15-year-old was arrested for shooting two other teenagers in the game room of an apartment complex off West Tampa Boulevard. 

Tampa Police Chief Lee Bercaw and department leaders during a town hall meeting to discuss the department and community response to the shooting that occurred in Ybor City over Halloween weekend. And in December, a Tampa teen was sentenced to 45 years in prison for shooting and killing a 13-year-old in 2021, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Community groups are working on efforts to curb this disturbing trend of youth gun violence. They include a nonprofit that works with youth in the juvenile justice system, a grassroots, neighborhood-level nonprofit whose co-founders each lost a child to gun violence, and an initiative launched by a Hillsborough County commissioner to address a broad range of community concerns following the closure of West Tampa’s Just Elementary School. 

Working with the juvenile justice system

The nonprofit organization Safe & Sound Hillsborough has its roots in the Tampa Bay community response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in December 2012. Over time, the organization transitioned to treat community violence as a public health issue and work to identify and address the social determinants and the contributors of violence. 

In the last couple of years, the organization has prioritized youth gun violence and working with children and teens in the juvenile justice system, says Freddy Barton, Safe & Sound Hillsborough’s executive director. 
There’s a 90-day structured supervision and intervention program for youth on juvenile probation. There’s also a six-month program, the Youth Gun Offender Program, for kids ages 12 up to 18 who face weapons charges such as grand theft of a firearm or use of a firearm and could potentially be charged as adults without the program.

The program provides stark reminders of the potential consequences of using a gun.

“We take them to trauma centers. We take them to hospitals. We take them to morgues. We take them to funeral homes,” Barton says. “They have to write their own eulogies as if they were gunshot victims themselves. They sit with individuals who have lost their family members and children to gun violence and have conversations with them, facilitated and monitored by us. They sit with individuals who have spent anywhere from 27 to 38 years in prison for murder, aggravated assault or manslaughter but are out on parole. They speak to these kids about the consequences of their choices in hopes that we deter them from making some of these choices again and hopefully prevent them from being direct filed as an adult and going farther in the system.”

Looking at the numbers, Barton says that in 2022 there were more than 300 shootings in Hillsborough County, nearly double the number from 2021. In the first three months of 2023, Hillsborough County was on track to surpass 2022, although numbers have trended down since then. 

Still, Barton says Safe & Sound Hillsborough is seeing children as young as 12 getting arrested on gun charges. Barton or another representative from Safe & Sound are in court hearings via Zoom every day of the year to see who will get court-ordered into the program or who they will advocate to get admitted into the program to help avoid 21 days in juvenile detention. Three to four kids a week are involved in some type of gun or weapons charges, he says. Safe & Sound Hillsborough Executive Director Freddy Barton

“We sit down and ask them, ‘Where did you get the gun and why did you feel you needed to?’” Barton says. “We know from the experts themselves, who are the kids we work with, that, ‘I feel I need to have a gun because everyone else has one. Because everyone else has one and people are on edge, on high alert, I don’t feel safe when I go to school. I don’t feel safe in my neighborhood. I don’t feel safe when I go anywhere, so I gotta have one too.’”

And guns are extremely accessible to kids, Barton says. More than 80 percent of the guns recovered from juvenile offenders have been stolen from unlocked vehicles, he says. Sometimes, they message each other on social media abut the neighborhood they are going to go to on a Friday or Saturday night to pull door car handles to try and get guns, Barton says. If they can’t get guns, he says they will go after credit cards to purchase things they can sell for money to get a gun.

Address the cause, not the symptoms

Following what he describes as the “public health 101 model,” Barton says, “We’re not looking at the issue itself but the root cause and contributors of that issue and addressing that.”

Instead of addressing the symptoms, they address the cause or causes, he says.

“A common denominator is, based on the age and the maturity level of these kids, they lack the social, life and anger management skills to cope with temporary situations,” Barton says. “Someone gets mad at someone, the first reaction is not to fight or walk away, it is to get a gun because that’s the only way I feel I’m going to win in this situation.”

So the program includes anger and aggression replacement therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. It looks at the consequences of decisions to “let these kids know you don’t have to make a permanent decision based on a temporary situation,” Barton says.

There are often also issues in their personal lives like an unstable home life, a lack of after-school or community activities to stay positively engaged, a dilapidated neighborhood that lacks jobs or job training opportunities.

“When you have a lack of place and space for kids to stay positively engaged, you have the propensity for violence to increase,” Barton says. “When you have dilapidated neighborhoods and blight in a community and there is no personal pride in investment and they have a sense of dejection, when you have a lack of workforce opportunities and jobs in a community, then people turn to other means to get money or find income. That’s a contributor to violence. In some cases, it’s not that services are not available but people cannot connect to them. If mom is working two jobs to make ends meet she is not there to watch her kid, who does not have a program they can go to after school to stay engaged. So they are back in this dilapidated community without programs or services and they go into delinquent behavior. You have to address all of these things. If nothing is done in the home environment or the neighborhood environment to address the issue, we hit the reset button every day.”

The Safe & Sound Hillsborough program involves parents in a focus group with their children. There’s a computer lab where the children and teens in the program do school work, work on credit recovery, or work toward a GED. Barton says he would like the lab to become a GED testing center and, hopefully, offer GED classes for the children and teens in the program and their parents.

Looking ahead, Barton says a grant through the Florida Department of Children and Family Services will enable Safe & Sound Hillsborough to begin offering mentoring and programming to at-risk youth who are not in the juvenile justice system but are at risk. He says those might be kids missing a significant amount of school, having a sharp decline in grades or have a safety plan in place because of behavior considered dangerous to them or others. The programs for at-risk youth will focus on children as young as middle school. But Safe & Sound Hillsborough also reaches children as young as seven or eight through an outreach program at the Boys & Girls Club to try and teach children about the consequences of their actions.

Thanks to a federal grant received by the Tampa Police Department, Safe & Sound Hillsborough will also begin offering intensive case management for children and teens in the Youth Gun Offender Program and their families. After Barton was named a Tampa Bay Lightning “Community Hero” for his work with youth offenders, Safe & Sound Hillsborough used a $50,000 grant from the team to buy two vans that will remove transportation barriers and get children and teens to the nonprofit’s center and other counseling sessions and appointments.

Turning  parents’ grief into positive change

After Johnny Johnson’s son, Jayquon Johnson, a high school basketball standout, was shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2017, Johnson rode his bicycle from his son’s gravesite to Tallahassee to push for changes to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which the teenager who shot Jayquon was able to successfully use as a defense. 

Rise Up for Peace Vice President and co-founder Johnny Johnson speaks at a Cafe con Tampa event.Johnson says he came away from that trip convinced that Florida’s gun laws are the product of lawmakers whose families, neighborhoods and children’s schools are insulated from the gun violence he feels those laws perpetuate. Back in Tampa, he met Patricia Brown, whose son Devante Brown had also been shot and killed. Together, Johnson and Brown co-founded Rise Up for Peace, a grassroots, volunteer-run, neighborhood-level nonprofit.

“Everyone in our organization has lost a child or loved one,” Johnson, the group’s vice president, says. “So we fight from hurt and pain and forever living with an empty chair…We are living with a pain there is nothing for.” 

Johnson says the East Tampa community where he lives is also “ground zero” for gun violence in the area, giving Rise Up for Peace a firsthand perspective other groups do not have. In November, a 17-year-old was killed in a drive-by shooting a few blocks from where Johnson lives. He says that he almost always knows the victim or a family member.

In the days after the Ybor City shooting over Halloween weekend, Rise Up for Peace, along with the nonprofit Moms Demand Action and Safe & Sound Hillsborough, organized a vigil and march in Ybor. The organization also routinely organizes community events such as anti-violence block parties, Thanksgiving food giveaways and Christmas toy drives.

Johnson says Rise Up for Peace is focused on helping family members who have lost children and loved ones to gun violence to work their way through grief. As someone living in the community who has lost a child to gun violence, Johnson says he also gets involved to de-escalate situations following a shooting and prevent retaliation. 

He says community organizations and local governments need to do more to help grieving families- who may already be struggling with inflation, unstable housing, and medical care issues before they lose a child or loved one to gun violence.

“We just want to see the needle move,” he says. “We want to actually see a family who lost their loved ones have their lives improved.”

Unity in our Community

On May 9th, the Hillsborough County School Board took a final 4-3 vote to close Just Elementary School in West Tampa, a school with a majority Black student population and dwindling enrollment where substitutes taught approximately half the classes.

In the wake of that vote, Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers launched a 509 Community initiative to focus on community issues such as gun violence prevention and intervention, local high schools issuing certificates of completion in lieu of diplomas, voter education and registration, and the upcoming 2024 election. 

Myers says the overarching goal is working to make sure that certain communities, neighborhoods and populations are not left behind as Tampa works to become “the next great city to live, work and play.” 

Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson feels city government needs to change its approach to economic development and neighborhood investments to create “a more inclusive community for all.”

Carlson says there has been too much focus on large park and community projects with hefty price tags and economic development initiatives to draw out-of-state firms to downtown. He says smaller yet important investments in parks, community centers, infrastructure and workforce opportunities throughout the city will improve quality of life and help address the underlying issues that lead to violent crime.

“We’ve got to create a community that’s inclusive, that helps everybody,” Carlson says.

To that end, he supports capping the money flowing into downtown Tampa's Community Redevelopment Area district at 50 percent of the property tax revenue generated in the area, with the remainder flowing to the city's general fund and its neighborhoods.

For Myers’ community initiative, education is a big part of gun violence prevention. She says parents need to be involved in keeping guns out of their children’s hands and making sure that underage children are not getting involved with gang activities or out on the streets late at night. 

From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 10th, Myers’ new 509 Community initiative is hosting a “Unity in our Community” event at Perry Harvey Sr. Park in Tampa. There will be food trucks, face painting and activities for children. There will also be a screening of “Blink,” a gun violence prevention film produced by Safe & Sound Hillsborough, a mental health panel discussion and community organizations and resources.

For more information, go to Safe & Sound Hillsborough and Rise Up for Peace.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.