For teens, it's curfew time ... at the mall
Shopping centers ban unsupervised teens on Friday and Saturday nights to curb violence. Kids say: Hey, where will we hang out?
It's 3 p.m. Time for the evening lockdown. A dozen security guards, several police officers, and the local sheriff line the nondescript hallways. They each stake out an entrance, making escape from their wary gaze nearly impossible. Those not watching the exits are wandering the corridors, searching for suspicious-looking characters.Skip to next paragraph
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One security guard heads towards a particularly dangerous-looking suspect: a 16-year-old girl dressed to kill. The guard gruffly instructs the young woman, Liz, to turn around and head back the way she came. But Liz isn't trying to escape, nor is she a troublemaker. "I just need to get a shirt for my dad's birthday," she explains.
Liz is not a criminal, and the guards and police are not trying to keep people in. They're trying to keep children and teens like Liz out – out of the shopping mall.
The mall is the Saint Louis Galleria, located in a wealthy, relatively safe suburb. But this scene could have been played out in more than 40 major shopping centers across the country. These citadels of capitalism have adopted what the Galleria terms a "parental guidance required" policy, where anyone under 17 must be accompanied by someone 21 or older.
Those possessing the badges of youth – carrying a backpack, or wearing baggy jeans or a micro-mini – are asked to produce an ID when entering the mall on Friday and Saturday evenings. Youngsters already shopping without an adult at the curfew hour, which at the Galleria is 3 p.m., are asked to leave by mall security.
The policy has stirred up emotion and controversy among teens, parents, and others and raises age-old questions: How do you create a safe shopping environment without singling out one group – in this case, teens? Will a curfew really bring more civility to the aisles of Ann Taylor and Aéropostale? And, most important, what will happen to the mall as mecca for millions of teen pilgrims who journey there by foot, bus, and minivan to socialize and to participate in America's obsession and economic lifeline – shopping?
Behind the curfews is the occasional violence at some shopping centers across the country – and, more common, the boisterous behavior of cliques of teens, who often scare off adult consumers. Just last month, for instance, a 14-year-old girl was slashed in the stomach during a fight at the country's premier indoor bazaar, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.
Such incidents are rare at the über-shopping center – officials say this is only the second act of violence in the past 18 months – but they weren't always so unusual. In 1995, the Mall of America reported 300 "incidents" involving youths. The following year officials there instituted one of the nation's first mall curfews. The number of altercations dropped to two.
Here in St. Louis, several malls have instituted curfews in just the past few months. The Galleria's went into effect on April 20 after a couple of fights broke out among young people last November and again in March. The Galleria's marketing manager, Jenny Koch, says the scuffles weren't the main impetus for the policy. The aim was to maintain a safe shopping experience.
Store officials here and elsewhere complain that swarms of teenagers do often make shopping seem as pleasant as a trip to the dentist. Youths dart annoyingly in and out of stores. They gather in loud clusters at the food court.
"There were so many kids around at night that no matter how many security guards and police there were, they couldn't keep them under control," says Ryan Clintsman, store manager at Hannoush Jewelers in the Jamestown Mall, another area shopping center that has imposed a teen curfew, this one at 5 p.m. "There'd be fights, and the kids wouldn't spend any money. They'd just hang out."