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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.

More kids are getting arrested with guns. A Tampa program aims to turn their lives around

Hillsborough's Youth Gun Offender program involves six months of education and support services for teens arrested on weapons charges. Completing it can lead to reduced legal penalties.
Stephanie Colombini
Hillsborough's Youth Gun Offender program involves six months of education and support services for teens arrested on weapons charges. Completing it can lead to reduced legal penalties.

In the first part of our series Growing Up With Guns, we look at Hillsborough’s Youth Gun Offender program. It's tackling crime by offering teens mentorship, education and mental health services.

Damari was scared.

Crime is high in his Tampa neighborhood, and he said men hanging by the bus stop would harass him on his way to and from high school. Damari, then 16, said he started carrying a loaded handgun with him everywhere he went.

“Because I knew, like, if nobody else could protect me then I could protect myself. If nobody else was going to be there at that time, then I would have my back,” he said.

Then Damari got caught with the gun at school in January. Tampa police said he made no threats to the school or students. They arrested him and charged him with felony possession of a firearm on school property.

Teenage boy stares off into the distance while standing in a garden.
Octavio Jones
Damari was worried about his future after he was arrested for carrying a gun. The Youth Gun Offender Program gave him a second chance.

Damari spent 21 days in a juvenile detention center. And he couldn't go back to finish his sophomore year.

“It was scary, I didn’t know what was going to happen in my life, because I was in like college classes, advanced classes and everything,” said Damari, who requested he be identified by his first name only to protect future job opportunities.

Law enforcement and other Tampa area leaders have been sounding the alarm about a rise in kids obtaining guns. They’re looking for ways to stop young people from pulling the trigger.

“We hear the people who say, ‘Oh, these are just bad kids.’ No, these kids are making bad decisions.”
Freddy Barton, Safe and Sound Hillsborough

Gun arrests are rising

Had Damari shot someone, the Hillsborough state attorney might have transferred him to adult court, where punishment is much worse. But instead the prosecutor, public defender and judge agreed: they'd offer him a second chance.

First, he had to complete the Youth Gun Offender program. The nonprofit Safe and Sound Hillsborough launched the program at the start of this year in an effort to curb violence using a public health approach.

“Unfortunately we saw a sharp increase in the number of kids being arrested on gun-related crimes,” said executive director Freddy Barton.

Americans have been buying guns at record-high levels in recent years, which has increased the risk of weapons falling into the wrong hands.

More than 1,700 kids were arrested in the state for possessing a weapon or firearm in the year leading up to July 2022, a 44 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Black males were disproportionately affected.

Some, like Damari, take guns from home. Others steal them from unlocked cars.

Barton's program largely focuses on non-violent offenders, or kids who have been carrying guns but haven't hurt anybody with them, though there are some exceptions.

“We hear the people who say, ‘Oh, these are just bad kids.’ No, these kids are making bad decisions,” Barton said. “And everyone can have an opportunity to change their stars and change their lives, so that's why we're trying to work with them as early as possible.”

The consequences of choices

Teens are court-ordered to attend the program for six months and then are monitored for another six. For now, only boys can participate, but Barton said they’re hoping to change that soon.

While in the program, they visit funeral homes, morgues and hospital trauma centers to glimpse at the horrors gun violence can cause.

Most activities are held at what Safe and Sound calls its Evening Reporting Center in Tampa, where it runs other diversion programs as well.

Man stands at the front of a classroom in a community center addressing a young teen in the audience.
Octavio Jones
James Coban, 61, spent more than 39 years in prison for murdering someone with a gun. Now he shares his story to young people in the hopes that they don't make the same mistake.

One recent evening, men who have killed people with guns came to the center to share their stories with the group.

“Do me a favor and repeat this: 39 years and two days,” James Coban, 61, instructed the boys.

That’s how long Coban spent in a Florida prison for murder. He’s been out on parole for just over a year.

Coban told the group his decision to shoot someone caused ripple effects that still hurt the victim’s family — and his own — today.

“There’s five generations — so far — five generations of people that have been affected by what I’ve done,” he said.

Addressing the root causes of violence

Barton explains gun violence often stems from underlying issues like family trauma or money problems.

Participants in his program get anger management counseling and can get referred to other mental health services. Mentors help them continue their education and connect them with job opportunities. Organizers also work with parents to involve them in the process.

“So we look at all the things that could possibly cause someone to fall down and we just address those things. And that's the public health approach of working with these kids here,” said Barton.

Two men and one teenage boy sit at a table in a food pantry.
Octavio Jones
Freddy Barton gets the kids he works with in his crime diversion programs involved with community service. This can help them meet court requirements and develop their resumes.

The Youth Gun Offender program is one of several initiatives Safe and Sound runs to prevent gun violence. Hillsborough County gave the group $200,000 in seed money for these efforts. Barton said he uses about half of that to pay for the gun program, along with some funding from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The City of Tampa also plans to invest grant funds in the program. And Safe and Sound was recently awarded several other grants, including $700,000 over three years from the Department of Children and Families to support mentorship programs for "at-risk male students."

"A lot of these kids don't have positive male role models in their lives."
Thaddeus Wright, Safe and Sound Hillsborough

Mentors play a critical role

His partner in the effort is Thaddeus Wright, a former marine who came out of retirement to manage the program.

The boys call him "Mr. Thaddeus."

"They're looking for someone to relate to them, they're looking for someone to show an interest because a lot of them feel that no one cares about what they think or what they want," said Wright.

It’s a job that extends well past the few hours kids spend there each evening.

Wright and Barton drive kids to and from the center. And if they need a ride to a court hearing or other appointment, they'll help if they can.

They teach them how to do things like tie a tie or change a tire. And once in a while they’ll take them out bowling or to the movies.

“Because a lot of these kids don't have positive male role models in their lives,” said Wright. “95 percent of the kids that come in when I do the orientation, they come in with their mothers or grandmothers. So we try to fill that void as best we can.”

A teenage boy plays basketball outside with an adult supervisor.
Octavio Jones
Thaddeus Wright bonds with the teens in the program so they have a positive male role model in their lives.

How Damari is doing now

The extra support can be a huge help for parents like Damari's mom Dee, who also asked to be identified by first name only to protect his identity.

Dealing with Damari’s arrest and the court system was really stressful, said Dee.

“Because I'm working a full-time job, I have another child, I was going to school at that time, so it was just like: 'How in the world am I going to be getting this kid to and from this program that's court-ordered so he can complete it?' ” she said.

Dee said she saw Damari transform over the six months he spent in the program. He would come home talking about career advice he had received, or community service he enjoyed doing.

In September a judge dismissed Damari’s case.

“This is a second chance for him to have a clean slate to live a full-fledged life,” she said.

In its first year Hillsborough’s Youth Gun Offender program has served 36 kids. Damari is one of 16 who successfully completed it. Others are still enrolled while four were discharged for getting in trouble again.

I just wish people would stay out of trouble. Try to make your community the best community.”
Damari, 17.

It’s too soon to tell whether that will stick. But studies show diversion programs like this are usually more effective at keeping kids from re-offending than traditional punishment. They are also cheaper to run.

Safe and Sound plans to partner with researchers at the University of South Florida to examine whether the program also improves families’ well-being.

Teenage boy stands at a fence picking vines off of it and putting them in a bin.
Octavio Jones
Damari, now 17, has completed the Youth Gun Offender Program. A judge dismissed his case. Now he's focused on getting his GED and helping his mom run community gardens.

Damari is 17 now and in the monitoring phase of the program. He spends his days focused on getting his GED, considered an alternative to a high school diploma.

He also helps his mom with the community gardens she runs in Tampa. Damari picked vines from the fence one recent afternoon and reflected on what's changed since his arrest.

Damari said he understands how reckless it was to walk around with a loaded gun. And he feels more comfortable turning to adults like his mom or Mr. Thaddeus for help.

Damari hopes to attend trade school and pursue a career in HVAC or as an electrician. He'd like to stay connected with the program and maybe mentor other kids one day.

I just wish people would stay out of trouble,” he said. “Try to make your community the best community.”

Damari’s life isn’t panning out the way he expected it to a year ago. But he plans to make the most of his second chance.

Coming Tuesday: The recent shooting in Tampa's Ybor City highlights the need for gun violence prevention.  But groups like Safe and Sound say they need more resources.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.