This article appeared in The St. Petersburg Times in August 1992:

Three teenagers stood talking in the soft glow of the lights outside the Kash n’ Karry at Seven Hills Plaza during the early morning hours of Aug. 14.

The shopping center parking lot, a popular Spring Hill hangout, is no stranger to teen trouble.

Last year, a girl socializing there was shot in the leg, and it is there that many fighting words are exchanged, and challenges are made to be settled on some other turf.

Last weekend, as the teens talked, another group of youths approached, shouting taunts, a sheriff’s report shows. Two from the first group, a 15-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy, tried to leave before the situation worsened.

The pair jumped into a car, but were sprayed with Mace by one of the other youths before they could get away. Two miles later, eyes burning, the boy wrecked the car in front of Springstead High School. Neither was injured. A week later, the alleged attackers remained at large.

A day after the Seven Hills Plaza incident, another occurred at Showtyme Video on Spring Hill Drive. A 17-year-old boy and a friend went inside to rent a copy of Lionheart, a slug-a-thug movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The boy exchanged words with another youth who then punched him twice in the face before fleeing. No arrest was made in that case.

Those incidents are the latest in what has become a summer of violent confrontations involving youths from throughout the county, including:

The death of Joe Morris, 19, who was gunned down one humid June night in front of a crowd of people at Tanglewood Apartments in Brooksville. The shooting followed an argument over a pair of sneakers, witnesses said. Donald Langley, a 17-year-old Central High School student, was charged with first-degree murder.

The injuries of two young women and a man on Azora Road when a group of at least 20 people swarmed out of dark woods in late June. The attackers wielded steel pipes, baseball bats and clubs. Clint Hutchins, 19, of Spring Hill was charged with three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. His was the only arrest in that incident.

A report the next day by two of Hutchins’ roommates that a 19-year-old suspect had tried to run them off the road in retaliation for the Azora Road incident. No arrests so far.

The arrests of two teenage boys and a 22-year-old man on concealed weapons charges after they were caught with an assortment of knives, a chain and some nun-chucks in their cars in Spring Hill. They were on their way to a fight at the time.

Are the kids all right?

Not all of the Hernando County youth crimes reported this summer have been violent.

Most involved shoplifting, burglary and other forms of theft. But police say those little offenses can snowball, especially when some youths have a law-can’t-touch-me attitude. Most times, those teenagers are right, at least until they do something heinous enough to get charged as adults and thrown into prison with murderers and rapists.

“Some kids, 16 and 17 years old, will say, `I’m grown up now; I’ll do what I please,’ ” said Sheriff Tom Mylander. “That has really compounded the problem of the turf wars, pounding their chests and showing they’re the big guys around.

“There’s no real deterrent for that kind of action. (The juvenile justice system has) sent a message that it’s okay to do whatever you want. The whole . . . system needs to be revamped to provide stiffer penalties. We need to bring this back to a level ground again.”

Mylander has said it before, and he’ll probably say it again and again: Parents must keep better track of their children, some of whom are staying out well into the wee hours.

Some break into houses; others try to break each other in half. Some just hang out and socialize peacefully.

For the mischievous, situations can turn quite dangerous.

A Spring Hill man fired at least one shot at a youth who along with some friends was burglarizing the man’s house. The teenager was not injured, but the possibility was there.

The week youths rumbled on Azora Road, a 14-year-old boy was caught inside the Kmart on Commercial Way before the store opened for the day. He was armed with a fully loaded .32-caliber revolver. After his arrest, he told police he had tried to rob a Weeki Wachee pizza restaurant and had burglarized a River Country home.

Where are the parents of these youths, Mylander wonders.

“Parents are just so frustrated, because discipline is gone from the home,” the sheriff said. “I’m certainly not advocating child abuse. I mean discipline like grounding. But a lot of parents are afraid to do anything to their kids because kids say, `If you ground me, I’ll turn you in for child abuse.’ ”

The violence among groups seems to be instigated by youths whose families hail from New York and Chicago, where bloody machismo and drive-by shootings of young people are all too prevalent, Mylander said. For them, violence is a way of life.

For others, it’s just a lethal way to vent teenage frustration. But in most instances, the sheriff said, teens are acting without thinking about the consequences.

“We’re not trying to keep kids from being kids,” Mylander said. “But they need to understand where the limits are. If you’re going to break the law, you’re going to have to pay the penalty.”

Crime and punishment

The glorification of crime and violence on TV and in movies blinds teenagers to the reality beyond both, says Deputy Jim Piscopo, a resource officer at Central High School.

Now that school is back in session, Piscopo said he wants to give students a sneak peek at what the future holds for the criminally minded. Among the activities planned this school year are field trips to the courthouse and the county jail.

“Once you get to see that reality, once that door is slammed, you’re about as rehabilitated as you ever get,” Piscopo said. “It’s a preventive method to show them that there is a reality. If you’re going to choose a life of crime, this is what’s going to happen.”

He said the public hears plenty of bad things about teenagers, but noted that the troublemakers constitute a small percentage of students. The thorns may be victims of parental neglect who have found no one to show concern for them, Piscopo said.

He and other resource officers try to talk sense into the youths who rage against the world. They even reach some, he said. Others are well out of reach.

“You try to talk these kids out of it, explain to them that violence is no way to solve problems,” Piscopo said.

Authorities also are banking on a proposed teen court to turn around the lives of young first offenders.

Following the example of a similar program in Manatee County, Hernando’s teen court would require a youth to plead guilty to a crime before facing a jury, with defense and prosecution consisting of other teenagers who would determine the punishment.

The penalties would range from a simple apology to community service, and all defendants would have to serve on a teen jury at least once, said Skip Samples, Hernando Circuit Court director.

Last year, more than 1,000 juvenile cases were filed in Circuit Court, records show.

Samples said the clerk’s office hopes to reduce that number significantly by using the teen court.

“It’s the same thing as going through the regular court system,” Mylander said, “but it’s by their peers. There will be certain things they have to accomplish, like community service hours, and it will give them a good handle on what goes on in the judicial system” and, he hopes, keep them out of it in the future.

The project, which would be financed with a $29,000 federal grant and $9,700 in matching funds from the county, may be in place before the year ends.

By Brody

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