A new vandal hits US streets: the bored, rich teen

Police are hardly frequent visitors behind the gates of Alpharetta's tony Windward community, where golf-club thefts are usually the No. 1 crime blotter item.

So the arrests of eight 14-year-olds last week on arson and explosives charges stunned the software execs and jet-setters who inhabit this new-money enclave, which offers "maintenance-free homes from the $650s."

Over 18 months - fueled by boredom and drugs, police say - the gang of high-class hooligans torched new home sites and tossed homemade bombs at the fancy signage. By the time they were caught, they'd racked up more than $100,000 worth of vandalism.

Angst and rebellion have, of course, gripped kids of all stripes since way before The Who rhapsodied about a "teenage wasteland." But while juvenile crime is down overall, the nation's poshest new suburbs now are producing the most audacious teen vandals, says Gary Melton, director of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University in South Carolina.

"Crime and delinquency rates are related to social drain, but it's also related to boom," says Mr. Melton. "In communities that are growing very rapidly, then the kinds of quality-of-life offenses like vandalism tend to go up, especially among young people."

To be sure, these are isolated incidents that, while more violent, may hark back to schoolboy pranks of the past. But critics of cookie-cutter communities point to a darkening irony: At a time when American families have more stuff to play with and, in fact, have more free time, upper-class adolescents today are expressing the deepest levels of malaise ever recorded by social scientists.

What lies behind the trend, experts say, is not just boredom, but a new face of fatalism.

Gilded with gifts but often feeling alienated from their parents, a growing proportion of teens from rich neighborhoods are lashing out in ever more bold and destructive ways, experts say.

Recent events certainly bear the studies out:

• This summer in Raleigh, N.C., the Planters Park neighborhood, home to some of the city's most powerful people, saw multiple gardens uprooted and the neighborhood pool heavily defaced - the handiwork, police suspect, of local Richie Riches.

• In a nicer suburb of Henrico County, Va., two youths are being tried as adults for an alleged prank gone sour: A torched car set fire to a nearby bungalow, burning it to the ground.

• Outside of Houston last week, teens from one of the city's nicest bedroom communities stole a plane and buzzed the high school stadium. As unbelieving fans watched, the teens toilet-papered the football game from the sky.

In a way, today's young people are the test pool for a new suburban experiment, having grown up in an era of unrelenting sprawl. And in many ways, they're having more trouble adjusting than their comrades and friends from more traditional rural towns - and even their peers in inner-city neighborhoods.

Nowhere is this more evident than here in Alpharetta, which in a decade has gone from a horse-and-corn country with rolling hills and pumpkin patches to a countrified metropolis, where the restaurants are so cutting-edge that plants have yet to take root in the goldfish ponds.

"When the growth happened, it exploded," says the Rev. Tommy Lockhart, pastor at the 163-year-old Union Hill Baptist Church on the edge of Windward.

"People didn't comprehend what the growth meant."

Outside the church, a horse pasture will soon be joined by a new mall. On the other side of the road, a glut of towering roofs jutting up behind a tall fence is all that's visible of Windward's densely built brick-and-wood mansions.

Unlike Alpharetta's not-too-distant past, when Mr. Lockhart says "everybody knew the in-laws and outlaws," the city's new incarnation is bent on preserving home values by shutting out the riff-raff with gates.

But instead of symbols of safety, sociologists say the gates and "no soliciting" warnings loom larger, at least to some kids, as signs of their parents' fears.

Indeed, as much as boredom, deepening paranoia may play a role in this growing despair.

Even the police say that such disillusionment with the future plays into teens lashing out at their ritzy surroundings.

"Am I appalled? Yes. Surprised? No," says Chris Lagerbloom, a spokesman for the Alpharetta Police Department.

Another part of the problem is a growing disconnect that kids feel from their parents and their neighborhood.

This is exacerbated in places like Windward's community of 10,000, where parks and tranquil ponds look beautiful, but where security officers enforce the "don't walk on the grass" signs.

Studies show that, across the country, organized activities such as cello lessons are up, but spontaneous pick-up games of football are down.

What's more, without a car, it's difficult for some adolescents to escape neighborhood enclaves bracketed by traffic-packed country roads.

"A lot of kids just end up loitering in the parks on weekends," says Deborah Dunham, a local resident. "And they usually leave a lot of litter and trash behind."

But not all the kids here are bored, says Debbie Gibson, an Alpharetta city councilor who moved into one of the first Windward homes 14 years ago. Her son has spent his entire life here, and she says he finds plenty of things to do.

Indeed, she says, Windward has a large percentage of stay-at-home moms, and that parents tend to be more, not less, involved in their kids' lives than in other developments. The 4,100-acre community also provides, within easy bike-path access, a sports park, a brand-new YMCA with a rock-climbing wall, a swim and tennis club, and parks with ponds for fishing - in short, lots of stuff to do.

"When I look at eight kids in a community that houses thousands of kids, I have to say, 'C'mon guys, give credit to all the kids here that are really growing up to be responsible individuals, and whose parents are extremely involved,' " says Ms. Gibson.

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