BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- There was the boy who aimed a gun in a food court. Then there was the kid who was nearly tossed from a fourth-floor walkway. All that came amid the usual tumult, the fighting and cursing and spitting that are the weekend routine as teen-agers congregate at the Mall of America.
Tonight, the country's biggest shopping center will try to break the Friday- and Saturday-night siege of loud, rude, sometimes intimidating throngs of teen-agers. Starting at 6 p.m., children under 16 won't be allowed into the mall unless they're accompanied by someone 21 or older.
It's an unusual marketing move, turning away customers on Friday and Saturday nights. But Teresa McFarland, the Mall of America's public relations director, says something had to be done.
"We're outnumbered," she said. "We're seeing too many unsupervised kids."
In an effort to lighten the message, the Mall of America is running radio ads. The new policy is advertised like a horror movie, complete with creepy music and the screams of teen-agers.
"It's out there. And it's coming to get you. It's the Invasion of the Parents."
The ad includes the voice of a panicky boy talking to a buddy who's going shopping "as a family unit." He says, "People will see you, man."
Elizabeth Merrick, 16, of Apple Valley, takes the ad seriously. "We're kids and we hang out with our friends. We don't want to hang out with our parents as much."
Unsupervised teen-agers present problems at malls around the country, says Mark Schoifet, of the International Council of Shopping Centers. "It's just a part of doing business today.
"Any policy that restricts customers coming into the mall for whatever reason is a last resort," Schoifet says.
But the Mall of America, which trades on amplifying the shopping experience to mammoth proportions, finds itself with amplified problems. "You round the corner and there's 2,000, 3,000 kids cursing and slapping each other," says Bloomington Police Chief Bob Lutz.
With 4.2 million square feet of space, three miles of walkways, 400 shops, four department stores, 14 movie screens, a "chapel of love" for weddings and a roller-coaster, Ferris wheel and flume ride at its center, the Mall of America was built to dazzle.
For teen-agers, the neon and noise are irresistible -- particularly in Minnesota's winters, when only the foolhardy would hang around outdoors.
"They have a very unusual physical situation there, so many walkways, so many corners," says Cathy Lickteig, spokeswoman for the Rouse Co., which manages 75 retail centers, including Harborplace and Mondawmin and Owings Mills malls. She says Rouse malls enforce no-loitering policies, which have been sufficient to defuse problems.
The mall managers say they made other efforts before imposing the new policy -- sending security guards into schools and hiring 20 women as "Mighty Moms" who walk the mall in hopes a little parental scolding might work.
Neither approach did enough. The escort policy was announced after talks with community groups -- but not to unanimous approval.
Gary Sudduth, president of the Minneapolis Urban League, believes the policy will be used arbitrarily. "If you have a tendency to think polka-dot kids cause more trouble, then consciously or unconsciously you're going to focus on polka-dot kids. I think the policy will be implemented unfairly."
Sudduth proposed "a zero-tolerance policy," with teen-agers who make trouble expelled from the mall for a year.
McFarland says the mall already tosses out youngsters who won't abide by the rules. Sudduth says the mall has never applied the policy consistently.
Suggestions that the mall's escort policy is racist, McFarland says, usually come from "the national media. They like to play up Minnesota, lily-white Minnesota, where we don't know how to handle diversity. The fact is, when you've got kids behaving badly, it doesn't make any difference what color they are."
Yusef Mgeni, president of the Minnesota Urban Coalition, says he does not see the policy as "a sinister, capricious plot nor as a racist conspiracy." But "the answer is not to parachute into their lives and impose some type of apartheid pass system. We have to talk to them."
Other malls have tried similar programs. In Newport News, Va., the Patrick Henry Mall imposed three years ago an escort policy on weekend evenings for visitors under 18. Nine weeks later, the problems had eased so much that the policy was ended.
Teen-agers congregate at Baltimore-area malls, but security guards generally can handle the problems they create, says Officer Bruce Paquin of the Baltimore County Police in Garrison.
Lutz says serious crime at the Mall of America is "very, very rare." On the day that a teen-ager was reported pointing a gun at a crowd in a food court, police arrested a 15-year-old who had a gun in a car parked in a mall lot.