LARGO — Parks and Recreation officials say the presence of some teenagers on playgrounds designed for children is becoming a growing problem. But because the city doesn’t have any rules on the books regarding age requirements, there is little staff or police can do to address complaints by concerned parents.
That could be changing soon after the City Commission voted 4-3 on June 1 to adopt an ordinance that would “enhance the safety of minor children at play and to limit the use of playground equipment to age-appropriate users.”
The proposed ordinance, which created a rare moment of discord among the commission, will require a second and final public hearing Tuesday, July 6.
The new regulation states no one older than 12 is allowed in designated child play areas unless he or she is a parent, guardian, or temporary custodian caring for a child.
Joan Byrne, the city’s Recreation, Parks and Arts director, said the measure will provide some needed “enforcement teeth” to police officers who currently can’t force any unruly teens to leave — mainly at playgrounds at Largo Central Park and the Highland Recreation Complex.
Deputy Chief Mike Loux backed up that claim, but said police would only get involved if it escalated beyond the control of city staff.
“Kids have a right to assemble, they have a right to free speech,” he said. “If they want to throw f-bombs out and do whatever they do, they can do that. This gives us the ability to physically trespass them. We have no desire to make any arrests but that could eventually be in there.”
And that was the problem for Commissioners Jamie Robinson and Eric Gerard, who said police involvement was going too far.
After a work session discussion about the topic last month, Robinson said he reached out to officers, parents and teens.
“I spoke to as many people, as many demographics as I could find that would be affected by this, and I cannot, for any reason, find a reason that we need to have this,” he said. “I understand that it can be a problem, but I see way too many unintended consequences coming from this than the problem that it would resolve.”
He acknowledged that some teens can be “punks,” but said he can envision some people calling the police just because they don’t like teens. He added that police interaction with teenagers could have a detrimental effect on their future.
Gerard called the ordinance “overkill” and said the situation could be handled much more diplomatically.
“I don’t want to criminalize teenagers,” he said. “And although this is just a city ordinance, I don’t want to put them in a situation where they have to be confronted by a law officer. Especially when they’re going through a period of maturing like this. I think it’s just too much and I think that there are better ways that it can be handled.”
Commissioner Michael Smith also voted against the ordinance and said he was skeptical that this was that big an issue.
Commissioner Donna Holck said it was an issue and that parents shouldn’t have to worry about their children’s safety at a playground.
“Those children deserve to feel safe and be able to play and not have to worry or be afraid of somebody bigger than them being on the swing that they want to swing on,” she said.
She added that the new rule doesn’t mean teens will get arrested, but it just gives police some assistance.
Commissioner John Carroll, a former Largo police chief, said if the city doesn’t listen to the concerns of parents and staff then they are going to end up with an empty playground.
“Who is not being counted here is the number of parents of young children and toddlers who just get in their car and leave because the environment is not suitable for their kids,” he said. “This is not about age. This is about behavior.”
Mayor Woody Brown, who asked for staff to address the problem after receiving a couple of emails from parents, said Central Park has plenty of space for teens and that the city should back up the police.
“The police department needs something to say, listen, it’s against the ordinance, you can’t be in here without a younger sibling, without a parent,” he said. “And I frankly don’t think that’s too much to ask for the playground.”