Trouble in a place that should be an oasis for kids

Sue Carlton takes us to a peaceful place in hardscrabble Sulphur Springs where kids learn art, and where violence erupts but does not belong.
Art at  Community Stepping Stones, an after-school and summer respite for kids in hardscrabble Sulphur Springs. Lately, there's been trouble from outside.   [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times (2018)]
Art at Community Stepping Stones, an after-school and summer respite for kids in hardscrabble Sulphur Springs. Lately, there's been trouble from outside. [MONICA HERNDON | Times (2018)]
Published May 25
Updated May 27

You might never know it was there, this little park tucked into one of Tampa's toughest and most stubbornly hardscrabble neighborhoods.

It sits at a pretty elbow of the Hillsborough River, past the sagging houses, dirt yards and chain-link fences that have come to define Sulphur Springs. The park, its trees draped in moss, slopes to a river bank where manatees meander by. At its edge is the building where children go to make art. Pretty amazing art, actually.

Called Community Stepping Stones, this non-profit on the park is a free after-school program and summer camp and a respite in a place that desperately needs it.

Not much in this part of town seems easy. The other day, program director Michelle Sears was leading what she calls the "walking bus" — escorting her current kids, ages 7 to 12, from Sulphur Springs K-8 Community School through the neighborhood, four blocks up and two over, to the after-school program at the tranquil park. There was trouble, and not for the first time.

The attackers were kids, too, maybe 10 of them, boys and a couple of girls ages 9 to 12. One was in third grade. They came at Miss Michelle's group, throwing rocks and trying to punch students. "I just kept walking them back," Sears said. As she blocked her kids, a boy tried to shove her and then hit her.

No one was seriously hurt. Her kids were scared even if they acted like they weren't.

The police report would note a history at the park: rocks thrown at the windows, bikes run into the front doors, bigger kids waiting for the smaller kids to come out use the bathrooms so they can harass them.

Tomatoes and greens the students grew outside got yanked up. Rocks they painted were thrown in the river, and the birdhouse, too. Sears said a kid on a scooter went in the bathroom and smeared feces on the walls.

The motive isn't clear and it's irrelevant, really — some exchange of words at school, maybe, something no one will remember a year from now.

Sears sees them as unsupervised children with nothing to do who form a group and call it a "gang." "It's a group of kids," she says. She blames what they consume, the movies and music and messages of violence.

She would also want me to tell you that "99.9 percent" of the neighborhood is "absolutely safe and supportive and wonderful," that the kids doing this are not typical of who lives here.

But it should go without saying no child anywhere should have to deal with this. It should also go without saying there are neighborhoods where this would never be allowed to happen.

Did I mention art?

The kids at Community Stepping Stones do projects around questions like "who invented wi-fi?" and "what's the oldest tree in the world?" They talk about critical thinking. Their art hangs in public buildings, and through June 14, in a gallery at Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus. A large piece created out of found trash hangs at Amalie Arena.

Inside that building by the river is a riot of color, enthusiasm and thought, markers and paints and sculptures and paper flowers. Right now, the kids are busy making fish and coral for their red tide exhibit.

The police report says trespass warnings were issued for "all the children" in the group causing trouble. Some parents did not want to press charges. The report indicates a juvenile charge for a 12-year-old boy for the battery of Sears.

One day last week following the incident, the Community Stepping Stones group got a police escort. "It's ridiculous," Sears said. "I shouldn't have to waste the police officers' time." Another day they had a peaceful walk, then another. Then someone came banging on the doors when class was in session.

She worries about the last day of school when there will be no threat of school-related repercussions to keep anyone in line.

"But we're not going to stop being here for the kids who come here," she says. "We're not going to stop walking."

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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