Getting to the bottom of the shootings that left two people dead after a New Year’s Day teen party, one a 15-year-old girl, is the job of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Investigators so far have said that the two security guards who fired the fatal shots feared for their lives.
But the job of discouraging the opportunity for such a tragedy to unfold falls to the Hillsborough County Commission, whose members Thursday signalled they’ll take a welcome fresh look at ordinances designed to protect the safety of young people.
Whether any law could have prevented these particular deaths can never be known. Investigators say that in a search of the car occupied by the two victims, they found two handguns that had just been fired. But this incident joins a sad litany of reminders that the potential for danger is high when people get large numbers of teens together to party.
In 2010, a high school graduation party at an event venue in Brandon ended in tragedy when the 70 invited guests ballooned to 300 — some from rival high schools — and a fistfight quickly turned into a shootout. One graduate was fatally shot and another was arrested on murder charges.
Teens hold no monopoly on the potential for danger posed by large, unregulated parties. The same security firm that employed the two guards in the New Year’s Day shooting is facing two lawsuits in connection with violence that erupted at adult clubs where it had been hired.
But County Commissioner Ken Hagan spoke for many parents at Thursday’s commission meeting when he indicated that the dangers teens face warrant special consideration: "Having a 15-year-old 10th-grader," Hagan said, "you can imagine this issue concerns me."
Commissioner Sandy Murman suggested working with the city of Tampa to deal with this through uniform ordinances.
The commissioners were responding to a story by staff writer Anastasia Dawson of the Tampa Bay Times pointing out differences in city and county ordinances that apply to large gatherings of teens.
In the city of Tampa, for example, event permits must be designated as "juvenile," with no one 18 or older allowed entry, or "adult," no one 17 or younger allowed, while Hillsborough County requires no separation. The city also requires hiring off-duty law enforcement officers — the county, only security guards.
The promoters of the New Year’s Day event violated existing zoning and event ordinances, county officials say, so it is clear that enforcement needs attention as well as getting the right laws are on the books. One challenge is the fleeting nature of one-night, pop-up gatherings such as this one — advertised and over with before anyone has a chance to check on them.
Going forward, it’s important to hone in on what’s reasonable and effective. Teens, of course, have always enjoyed independence and one another’s company. They will gather, and they will party, to ends that are sometimes rewarding and sometimes devastating. Their parents are ultimately responsible for their actions.
Where public policy enters the picture, in part, is dealing with those who would grow and regionalize teen parties to a commercial level — sometimes teens themselves, but especially promoters and landowners who would profit from them.
A visit to the scene of the New Years’s Day party is an argument for following up on the commissioners’ suggestions to do something.
It’s in a cramped, gritty, rundown neighborhood on a skinny, two-lane street ill-suited for the residential area that runs along one side let alone the industrial uses on the other. The dingy event hall is tightly surrounded by storage units with roll-up doors housing various repair shops.
Yet some 200 teens paid $10 each to welcome 2018 here with a "New Year’s Teen Pajama Jam," drawn through Facebook groups like "Tampa Teen Clubs" and "Tampa Talent" with glitzy promotions that belie the grim reality.
"Dub D Dance Hall" is what promoters called the place.
This venue’s days as a party hall may be over. But let’s hope that heading off its successors won’t require more people to die.