Saint Petersburg city leaders, youth football representatives and the community met on Wednesday evening to discuss creating a safer environment for the city’s youth football league following a a recent incident.

Mayor Ken Welch led the community conversation at the Lake Vista Recreation Center, a short distance from the Lakewood High School football field. The reunion was in response to a big fight two weekends ago during a game between the Lil’ Devils of St. Petersburg and the Lakewood Jr. Spartans, when a group of teenagers started fighting at off the field before storming the fences and leaving those present fearing what would happen next.

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

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

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

“We’re going to bury someone, then everyone will look sad. It’s time to change culture. »

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

Murphy added that it was hard not to show his passion because the problem persists. He, like many others, noted that 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 young people in the city.

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 pledge to work closely with the youth of St. Petersburg, stood intently and took notes and names of speakers throughout the two-hour meeting. He said it was due to his plans for individual follow-up conversations and promised Wednesday night’s event was the first of many.

“It’s not the last meeting, and we have the resources,” Welch said. “And when you’re mayor, you have things you can do.”

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

A youth soccer representative noted that the teams are non-profit organizations and spend between $3,000 and $4,000 a week on security. She said they asked for eight police officers but received two and paid for 12 additional private security officers from the organization’s meager budget.

Wesley Reed, president of the Lakewood Jr. Spartans, noted he had to pay high furlough rates for city-supplied officers and said he would ‘go broke’ to ensure the safety of his children and their families. during football matches.

Dexter Daughtry, president of the St. Pete Little Devils, said his organization paid $50 an hour for its officers during the incident in Lakewood.

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

As a retired military veteran of 20 years, Daughtry said he felt safer touring Iraq.

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

Like many others, Daughtry said he could only control what happened within the confines of the football pitch. He also expressed dismay that people are now running towards chaos rather than away from trouble.

Reed and other coaches noted that trouble started brewing long before kickoff.

Attendees reported parents chatting and betting on social media before the games. Reed said he was also unaware that several school incidents preceded the fight.

“These kids and these people, they’re programmed to come out there and fight and stuff,” he added.

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

A flyer accompanying the meeting said the city was working with regional partners in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to resolve “the heightened tensions among community members attending our city’s little league games.”

The city also listed strategies it has recently implemented to create a safer environment. These include mandatory security checks before entry; requiring a police and security presence after 5 p.m.; not allowing older children to play the last match of the day; and mandatory background checks for all coaches, board members and volunteers. He also provided training to coaches and board members through the Positive Coaches Alliance.

“My day job there is to provide a safe environment for 355 children,” Reed said. “I’m proud of what we do.

“So instead of getting your perception from the outside looking inside and what people are posting on Facebook – come in there.”

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