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Growing Up With Guns
More children in Florida are getting their hands on guns. And even if they don't intend to use those weapons for violence, it can have serious consequences for them and their communities. Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini has been exploring the way guns can endanger kids' lives and futures.

Advocates working to prevent youth gun violence in Florida say they need more help

Man stands addressing media in a park. A group of people stand behind him with signs and t-shirts calling to end gun violence.
Octavio Jones
Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough, spoke at a recent vigil for victims killed and injured in the Oct. 29 shooting in Ybor City. He's working to prevent youth gun violence.

Community leaders say the recent shooting in Tampa's Ybor City highlights the need to curb gun violence among young people. Advocates are calling for more resources to combat the problem.

Freddy Barton is slammed. He helps kids who get arrested in the Tampa area stay out of more trouble. It's often a 24/7 job.

Every morning, even Christmas, Barton attends court. He's looking for kids to join diversion programs he runs as executive director of the nonprofit Safe and Sound Hillsborough.

One, called the Youth Gun Offender program, focuses on teens arrested on firearm charges. It involves six months of court-ordered education and support services plus another six of monitoring.

“It’s all about making sure one, you don’t get re-arrested on any crime, but specifically any gun or violent or weapon-related offense,” said Barton. “But then also pairing them up with a mentor or a guide that's going to follow them and see what else they need, you know, in order to not just not re-offend but also be better and productive.”

Advocates for criminal justice reform, like Barton, are working hard in Florida to steer young people away from violence. But they say resources are often limited, while demand for help grows.

“We have a huge outbreak of kids possessing guns and we want to do something to respond to that, and something that's proactive and helps them rehabilitate, because that's the whole point of juvenile justice"
Irene Maslanik, Office of the State Attorney, 13th Judicial Circuit of Florida

Man sits down at a bench talking to a woman who is the Hillsborough state attorney.
Octavio Jones
Safe and Sound Hillsborough works closely with Hillsborough State Attorney Suzy Lopez along with the public defender's office and judges to identify kids who could benefit from their violence intervention programs.

Hillsborough County gave Safe and Sound $200,000 to pay for violence prevention efforts, and Barton said they use about half of that to run the Youth Gun Offender program. It launched at the beginning of this year as community leaders noticed an increase in kids carrying guns.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice reported that 44 percent more kids were arrested on weapons or firearms charges in the year leading up to July 2022 compared to the previous year.

Stakeholders including police officials, judges and prosecutors applaud Barton’s efforts as an effective alternative to sentencing kids to jail.

“We have a huge outbreak of kids possessing guns and we want to do something to respond to that, and something that's proactive and helps them rehabilitate, which is the whole point of juvenile justice, right?” said Irene Maslanik, deputy chief of juvenile for the Hillsborough state attorney’s office.

What it takes to run these programs

A lot goes into running these initiatives, and Barton said current funding, which also includes grant money and private donations, isn’t enough to combat violence to the fullest extent.

Barton and colleague Thaddeus Wright teach teens anger management and other life skills. They spend hours coordinating with parents and community partners. To make it easier for kids to participate, they give them rides to and from the program and free meals.

In addition to the kids participating in the six-month gun program, dozens more are involved in 21-day and 90-day programs for youth in different stages of the justice system. Barton and Wright said it's a constant balancing act to manage them all.

Interns and volunteers help, but the bulk of the work falls on them, said Barton.

You're talking about case management, you're talking about navigating the judicial process, you're talking about feeding them [kids], so it takes quite a bit of resources,” Barton said.

They find comfort in coming here. They know we have their best interest at heart.”
Thaddeus Wright, Safe and Sound Hillsborough

A group of teenage boys sit in a community center. Two male supervisors talk to them.
Stephanie Colombini
Hillsborough's Youth Gun Offender Program involves six months of court-ordered education and support services, plus another six of monitoring. It takes a lot of resources to run.

Then there are the unofficial duties.

One morning, Wright was attending court via Zoom when he got a phone call. A teen that they’re working with was in a tough spot. He'd recently been arrested for stealing a gun from an unlocked car.

On this day, he showed up to his high school but wasn’t allowed on campus because of his charge. His mom couldn't get off work to pick him up. So he called Wright and asked to come to the center where they work.

They find comfort in coming here,” said Wright. “They know we have their best interest at heart.”

Wright got him an Uber ride to the center and gave him some advice. He didn’t have to do this.

But many of the guys they work with don't have a lot of support, Wright said. Their families may be struggling financially, and even parents who want to be involved often need help themselves.

”This will go on all day, and that's kind of why we need help. It's, it's never-ending,” Wright said.

Man sits at a desk with his laptop open. He's surrounded by juvenile justice paperwork.
Stephanie Colombini
Thaddeus Wright manages Safe and Sound Hillsborough's diversion programs and said there's a constant demand for help.

Growing investment in the program

And help is coming.  

Safe and Sound is receiving some state and federal grants to hire mentors and assist families who need extra support.

The Department of Children and Families is giving the group $700,000 over three years to support mentorship programs for "at-risk male students," part of a fatherhood initiative the state legislature voted to establish in 2022.

A two-year grant from the National Institute of Justice totaling $170,000 will pay for staff that can help young people overcome barriers to employment.

The Tampa Police Department plans to work with Safe and Sound and other nonprofits to carry out a broader “community-based violence intervention and prevention initiative,” funded with a $1.5 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The city was selected to receive the grant in fall 2022 and awaits approval for its implementation plan.

“The law enforcement approach alone is not enough,” said Calvin Johnson, the department’s deputy chief of community outreach and professional standards. “... We’re all trying to partner to really get the most out of it."

Two blue minivans are parking on a street. The logo for Safe and Sound Hillsborough is painted on the sides.
Freddy Barton
Safe and Sound Hillsborough
Recent investments have allowed Safe and Sound to hire support staff and buy vans to help with transportation.

If approved, a portion of the grant would support the diversion programs that Safe and Sound runs, and fund research into how well they work.

“We’re going to be collecting the data to see how is this turning out. Are we actually impacting gun violence in a notable way in Tampa compared to similarly sized cities?" said Bryanna Fox, co-director of the University of South Florida’s Center for Justice Research and Policy, another partner on the initiative.

The recent investments have allowed Safe and Sound to hire two people to serve as “youth specialists” to work with teens. The group is looking to bring on additional case managers and support staff in the near future.

Another donation from the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation recently paid for vans to take the kids to the program. Barton and Wright had been using their own cars before.

But they barely had time to celebrate before tragedy brought national attention to gun violence in Tampa.

“We need to get to our kids, we need to get to our parents, we need to bring law enforcement and all our community agencies together. If we don't continue to keep doing that, and let up off the gas, we're going to see more and more of these events happen.”
Freddy Barton, Safe and Sound Hillsborough

A shooting in Ybor City highlights the need for change

On Oct. 29, a fight broke out between young people on the streets of Ybor City, a popular nightlife area. Gunfire ensued. Two people died and 16 others were injured.

A 22 year-old man and 14 year-old boy face second-degree murder charges. A third man was arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder and battery.

One victim, Harrison Boonstoppel, was 20, while the other, Elijah Wilson, was also 14. He was armed too.

Woman holds a candle while her daughter helps her light it. They stand in a crowd with others at a gun violence prevention vigil in Ybor City.
Octavio Jones
Brucie Boonstoppel (center) has been an outspoken advocate for gun violence prevention since her son Harrison, 20, was murdered in an October shooting in Ybor City. She pleads for change at a recent vigil honoring the victims.

Barton helped organize a vigil for the victims.

“When we hear there's a tragic loss of life, especially 14 years of age, no matter what the circumstance, you know it really takes the wind out of our sails,” Barton said.

Some of the kids in his program knew Wilson, said Barton. He wishes they had a licensed therapist on the team better suited to address moments of trauma like this.

“We need to get to our kids, we need to get to our parents, we need to bring law enforcement and all our community agencies together. If we don't continue to keep doing that, and let up off the gas, we're going to see more and more of these events happen,” Barton said at the Nov. 1 vigil.

Just 10 days later, another teen was killed in Tampa. The 17-year-old was shot in the head during a drive-by shooting. Emergency responders tried to help, but the boy died at a local hospital.

Barton said he knows Safe and Sound faces an uphill battle when it comes to curbing community violence. But they're determined to keep at it.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.