`Curfew' makes hanging out at mall a bit trickier


Nicolette Felts and her friends are looking to "chill" on a cool autumn night.

All freshmen at Dulaney High, they might wander the makeup aisles at the cosmetic shop, or grab a table at the cheeseburger joint. And they can always just lounge around a gazebo trimmed with white lights - there's even an outdoor fireplace near it, though some grown-ups with coffee are crowding the warmest spot.

But as the night goes on, and Nicolette and her friends walk across a faux Main Street, a security guard calls to them: "Ladies and gentleman, where are you going?"

Once the clock strikes 9, no one under 18 is free to simply hang out at Hunt Valley Towne Centre, which in September joined a movement among shopping centers across the country to set restrictions for teenagers.

To the girls at the Towne Centre on a recent Friday night, this is a "curfew."

But the shopping center management prefers to call it an "escort policy," because if children are in a restaurant or a shop, or with parents, they can stay.

"A curfew says be home at 9," says Mark Renbaum, a project manager at Greenberg Commercial, the developer and owner of Hunt Valley Towne Centre. "We're saying go to a store. Go to a restaurant. Go see a movie."

The Avenue at White Marsh instituted a nearly identical policy last spring. And shopping centers - from the Mall of America in Minnesota to the Chapel Square Mall in New Haven, Conn. - have similar restrictions.

At last count by the International Conference of Shopping Centers, about 30 malls and shopping centers across the country have them. And judging by the number of calls they get from mall and shopping center managers, the trend is likely to continue, says Patrice Duker, ICSC spokeswoman.

Some of these managers are responding to complaints about groups of teenagers hanging around, or to problems such as fighting on parking lots. Others are trying to avoid the appearance of such security issues, Duker says.

"These policies aren't haphazard," Duker says. "Most of the managers have done extensive homework about what the problems are, when they're occurring. And they're center-specific. One mall might ask that all teenagers be accompanied by an adult on weekends. ... At others, it doesn't include the movie theater or department stores."

At the Mall of America - the largest in the United States, with an amusement park inside - children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult 21 years or older from 4 p.m. until closing Fridays and Saturdays. Each weekend, 10 to 12 volunteer parents, called "Mighty Moms and Dedicated Dads," help enforce the policy, greeting teenage shoppers and helping those not accompanied by parents call for a ride home, says Dan Jasper, a spokesman for the mall.

It was among the first malls to institute an escort policy, in 1996. This was in response to "some rowdiness, nothing really serious," Jasper says. "They're teenagers. They do teenage things."

The trick is being able to enforce the rules but not "alienate the kids," says Andrea K. Wehage of Silver Star Security, which patrols Hunt Valley Towne Centre.

According to marketing firm Teens Unlimited, youth ages 12 to 19 spent $169 billion last year. And there is probably no demographic that spends more time at the mall.

Steve Baum, president of Greetings & Readings, keeps his bookstore and gift shop in the Towne Center open until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, so theatergoers can browse after a movie. He is pleased with the escort policy.

"It's a smart thing to do. Why wait for a problem?" says Baum, adding that customers may not feel comfortable at a shopping center where teens are hanging around on parking lots or being rowdy. "It's a positive thing for teens, too. They should be able to shop in comfort, too."

But 15-year-old Sarah Tuccitto isn't buying it.

"If you're just hanging out, you get in trouble. It's not fair," she says.

Sarah is strolling the shopping center with Nicolette, who doesn't like the policy either. But, like other teenagers there, she says it's not going to stop her from going there.

"There's nothing else to do," Nicolette says. "We have to go somewhere. Besides the mall in Towson, this is it."

At 9 p.m., the line of parents in sport utility vehicles and cars outside Regal Cinemas stretches into the road.

Silver Star Security Sgt. William Bull knocks on the window of Nancy Lanagan's Honda minivan and hands her a sheet of paper about the center's escort policy. As he explains the basics, the Lutherville mother of two nods her head and smiles.

"I think it's great. It keeps your kids of harm's way," says Lanagan, who is there to pick up her 14-year-old daughter. "I want her to be safe during these little intervals of freedom."

The policy wins similar approval from other parents on pick-up duty.

"I think teenagers in large numbers would detract from this shopping experience," says Brad Dudley, as he sips coffee with his wife, Whitney, warming themselves at the outdoor fireplace.

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