A teen was told by police to leave the Jacksonville Fair in Florida on Nov. 3 after he refused to tuck his memorial necklace — an homage to his late mother — under his T-shirt to conceal it. Four officers escorted him and a second teen out of the fair without issuing them refunds, according to representatives on both sides.
The incident has created great tension in the community, with a mentor for the teens, Amy Donofrio, calling it a case of racial profiling. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Jacksonville Fair, Gayle Hart, called it a “sensitive” situation that has unfortunately “caused a lot of grief.”
Memorial clothing and jewelry is banned at the fair at the recommendation of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO), Hart tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “because it’s associated with bad behavior.” She says the JSO is also the team that enforces the rule. “The lieutenant I talked to said it’s the same as when you walk into a bank and you can’t wear sunglasses or a hat.” But Donofrio went a step further, saying, “I called the head of the [JSO’s] gang unit last week, and his statement was that memorial apparel, most of it is gang-related.”
Though the teen’s identity is not being revealed, Donofrio confirmed that he is definitely not affiliated with gang activity. In fact, she says, he’s a member of the Evac Movement, a community Donofrio founded to bring together at-risk youth (she calls them “at-hope”) with the intention of “channeling painful personal tragedies into positive change.” And as such, the teens are empowered as youth leaders — a group even met with President Barack Obama during his tenure — and often participate in roundtable discussions with police. The teen in question, she tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “has a working relationship with the head of the gang unit” at JSO.
Donofrio, who was not present the night of the incident, recounted the way the teens described that night to her. “Two of the Evac boys went to the fair, and [each] paid a $25 entrance fee,” she says. “It’s very heavy security. Security held his necklace while he went through a metal detector.” The boys then walked around for a half-hour before four officers started “paying close attention to them.”
One of the officers then approached the boys and asked one to pull up his pants, she says. He then turned to the teen in question and ordered him to tuck in the memorial necklace, which bears a photo of his mother. “He said, ‘Sir, I’m not going to tuck it in. It’s my mother and I have a legal right to wear it,” Donofrio says. She claims the ban on memorial gear was not part of any dress code policy she or the boys were aware of at the time, and that the policy that was later brought to her attention states those who wear memorial jewelry will be denied entry.
In a statement issued to First Coast News, representatives for the Jacksonville Fair said: “The fair is a private company on private property. The fair rules are posted on the private property. A private company can implement any rules they wish for their business. The individual was asked to place it under his shirt. The individual declined which prompted him being asked to leave. Any private business who requests security parameters, we assist with recommendations. It is up to them what rules they wish to enforce on their property.”
But Donofrio questions the intentions of the dress code, which targets not only memorial clothing but also hoodies — clothing that she says is popular with black youth. “It’s used purposely to prey upon and keep out African-Americans in the community,” she says. She also wonders why a sign posted at the entrance to the Jacksonville Fair reading “If you are wearing memorial clothing or jewelry you will be denied entry” was not present when one of the Evac teens took a picture of the entrance — but seemed to appear “as an afterthought” only when Donofrio called demanding an explanation.
But Hart, who serves as the vice president of marketing and the de facto publicist for the Jacksonville Fair, does have an explanation. “I was under the understanding that that sign was there the entire time,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. When Donofrio called, Hart says, she asked one of the staff members to read the sign to her, “so he took it down and it sat on his desk for an hour or two.”
She notes that in a previous interview with a TV news station, she mistakenly attested that the sign was there. “I said something on air that was totally false, and I have been called a liar. It was horrible. I had no idea that the sign was down for any time. And for that I’m very sorry,” Hart says.
Because she also was not present at the time of the incident, Hart is hesitant to speak to the teens’ behavior, but she was told “it wasn’t a good exchange.” When asked why Donofrio was not ejected from the fair for wearing a memorial shirt — which she did the following weekend as an experiment — Hart reiterated that it’s the JSO that enforces the dress code. “The shirt is open to police interpretation,” she said.
Donofrio says she hopes that in the future, the Jacksonville Fair will work with youth leaders “to give feedback on how they can make this a positive, inclusive experience for everyone.” But at the very least, she hopes for a refund for the teens as well as an apology from Jacksonville Fair representatives.
“We would definitely give a refund,” Hart says. “I would take it out of my own pocket.” However, Donofrio claims representatives from the fair already told the teens they’d “think about” refunding the money when they were presented with the request earlier.
Hart also added, “If an apology is what will rectify everything, of course. We had a rule, unfortunately it didn’t have a nice ending, and for that I’m deeply, deeply sorry.” Although she doubts the dress code policy will be changed, she regrets that it caused so much pain. “We’re just trying to put on an event where everyone has a good time, for families to make memories of growing up,” Hart says. “I hated that anyone got their feelings hurt, and that’s not what we’re about.”
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