Store managers are banking on a new policy that would limit when and where unsupervised youths hang out at the Columbia Mall to create a friendlier shopping environment and increase business.
“I would say 99 percent of the stores in the mall are fully in favor of it, if not 100 percent,” said David Robinson, the owner of Mr. Bulky, a candy store in its 10th year at Columbia Mall. He said the policy may discourage teens and decrease business flow initially, but it would be beneficial in the long term, if people feel the mall is a safe place to shop.
“I am very positive (about) this policy,” Robinson said. “Most of the store holders in the mall feel that way.”
Under the policy, which will be implemented Feb. 2, youths 16 and younger will be required to stay with an adult older than 21 from 4 p.m. to close on Fridays and Saturdays. The areas affected by the policy consist of common areas, food courts, parking lots, exterior seating areas, walkways and any corridor leading into the mall.
“Our basic goal of the program is to encourage the entire family to visit the mall on Friday and Saturday evening,” said Sonja Derboven, marketing manager of the Columbia Mall. “We welcome the teens to continue to come to the mall and shop here. We just ask them to bring an adult with them on Friday and Saturday evening.”
Derboven said the new policy is in response to feedback the mall got from shoppers and merchants regarding large groups of teens in the mall during weekend evenings.
“Some families are deterred by the large groups of young children,” said Brianne Sutherland, an associate manager at Gap. “(The policy) will help our business tremendously. The kids that are running around the mall on Friday and Saturday nights are just hanging around and are not actually purchasing.”
The Columbia Police Department supports the policy, which it believes will help reduce the number of fights and other issues the mall has with youths. Capt. Stephen Monticelli, who oversees western Columbia, said police have received calls from the Columbia Mall security to assist in teen disputes which usually start verbally and then turn physical.
“That’s why the police department is very supportive of this new program that (the mall) initiated,” Monticelli said. “They are not trying to prevent the kids from coming to the mall; they just want them to be supervised.”
Last year, 26 out of 635 calls made to police from the Columbia Mall were related to juveniles. Last February, a fight broke out at the mall’s Café Court involving 100 to 200 young people. Mall managers closed the mall early and called police for help. A shopper who was separated from two of her children was arrested while trying to retrieve them during the incident. She was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer, but the charges were dropped.
Monticelli said the police department is not directly involved in making the new rules because the mall is private property.
Columbia Mall is among 39 other malls nationwide to adopt similar policies. Many of the policies are created to ensure a friendly environment to attract consumers, said Patrice Duker, a spokeswoman at the International Council of Shopping Centers, a global trade association of the shopping center industry.
“The mall is not in the business to act as (the youths’) escorts or their guardians,” she said. “The mall is there for the act of shopping to take place.”
Mona Dupré, the mother of four children affected by the policy, welcomes the change. She said it’s necessary to accompany her children in the mall during peak hours because they have had uncomfortable experiences there. For instance, Dupre’s 11-year-old daughter was once followed by an older boy, she said.
“I would feel a lot safer if the mall would put a rule (that) said the parents have to accompany their kids to the mall,” Dupre said. “I like the idea.”
According to the policy, any unaccompanied person who looks like he or she might be younger than 17 will be asked for identification at the entrance of the mall to provide proof of age. Around 3:30 p.m., the guards will notify youths who are alone to either join their parents or supervising adults by 4.p.m. or leave. After 4 p.m., any unsupervised youth will be escorted to a pick-up area, where they can either ride a bus home or call their parents to pick them up, Derboven said.
Department stores with an exterior entrance, such as JC Penney, Target and Dillard’s, will be exempt from the policy.
For some teens, the policy is not about safety or business, but their rights and freedom. “Anybody should be able to come to the mall without a parent,” said Dominique Hightower, 15, a junior at Rock Bridge High School, who accompanied his friends to the mall Tuesday morning.
Briana Phillips, 13, said she does not care much about the policy since she usually visits the mall in the daytime with her friends. “I feel like I have more freedom, than if my parents were there, with my friends,” she said. “I don’t think it will bring families together because the kids will just go during the week. Like tons of kids go during the weekdays on half days. Tons of kids walk to the mall from school, and I think that they are just not going on (weekends) with their parents. They’ll just find other times to go.”
— Missourian reporter Pamela A. Mulumby contributed to this story.