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photo:Alicia Solsman

Under 18? Stay Home
By Rick Marshall

Curfers, anti-skateboarding rules, closed school grounds..... What’s a teen to do?

It’s Friday night at Guilderland’s Crossgates Mall, and the massive shopping complex is bustling. Outside a shoe store, a middle-aged couple evaluate the sales posted in the store’s window, while the blond-haired children sandwiched between them hold their parents’ hands, swinging their arms back and forth and giggling loudly. A young woman directs a baby stroller around the foursome and carries on her cell-phone conversation, her stroller’s tiny occupant never taking his eyes off the flashing lights and bright colors of the nearby arcade. When the pair roll by a mall kiosk, an elderly couple in matching wheelchairs wave and coo at the hypnotized child, only to resume arguing a few seconds later about the best way to reach their next destination.

“There’s an elevator near the book store,” says the woman, jabbing her finger at a point on the kiosk’s map of the mall. “I remember that elevator.”

“There’s no book store, and the elevator is near the movie theater,” her companion replies, “and you can barely remember what year it is.”

To the casual observer, it’s your standard Friday night at the mall, with the massive complex happy to provide a place for consumers of all types to spend their money. Yet, a closer examination of the mall’s guests on this particular evening tells a different story—one that’s often overlooked in this sort of Norman Rockwell-flavored commercialism. Tonight, there’s a hole the size of a generation in the mall guests, because on this weekend, and all the weekends to come, Crossgates Mall has followed the lead of cities, towns, schools, parks, clubs and streets around the region (and possibly the country) in telling unsupervised teenagers they’re no longer welcome.

“This policy is not a curfew,” said Michael Bovalino, chief executive officer of Pyramid Companies, the owner of Crossgates Mall, in a May 20 Times Union article covering the mall’s new “Must Be 18” policy. The policy, which began July 15, requires anyone under the age of 18 to be escorted by a parent or guardian after 4 PM on Fridays and Saturdays. According to the new policy, anyone who doesn’t have proof of being over 18 or a parent or guardian in tow will be barred from the premises (or, in the event that they were dropped off, given an opportunity to call for a ride home). The same goes for anyone who entered the mall prior to the restriction’s 4 PM starting time.

And while some might argue with Bovalino’s assessment of the policy— Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a curfew as “a regulation enjoining the withdrawal of specified persons from the streets . . . or places of assembly at a stated hour”—mall representatives insist that the new policy is simply aimed at changing the mall environment from a youth hang-out spot to a public shopping spot.

When taken by itself, the introduction of such a policy could seem justified in the public eye. Stories about the dangers of unsupervised youth pepper the daily news. New strategies for protecting citizens from youth (and saving youth from themselves) have become standard fare in campaign platforms each election year. Yet, when these policies are viewed alongside similar restrictions that have become all the rage in recent years, such as skateboarding bans and limited access to school grounds, and alongside true juvenile crime statistics, questions surface about whether the teenage generation truly poses the threat it’s stereotyped with.

In society’s rush to prevent criminals from being created, has being young become a crime in itself?

“You get these knee-jerk reac-tions to what people believe is going on with youth, but nobody reports what’s really happening,” says Melanie Trimble, executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “There’s this sense that crime is on the increase among youth . . . and it’s just a complete and utter misconception.”

According to Trimble, who campaigned against a proposal two years ago that would have established a youth curfew in Albany, there’s been a rise in the number of curfews and other restrictions affecting youth in recent years, despite a steady decrease in juvenile crime that began long before such policies. Reports by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice indicate that the number of juveniles involved in criminal activity has been dropping for more than a decade, with juvenile crimes accounting for less than 5 percent of all crimes each year. The latest NYSDCJS Uniform Crime Reporting statistics show the number of juveniles arrested between 1995 and 2000 dropping from 1 to 10 percent each year.

Although there’s no end to the possibilities for debate where statistics are concerned, the societal effects of imposing curfews and other legislation that “throw a criminal blanket over all kids” may be more troubling than flaws in their justification, reasons Trimble.

“If a kid commits a crime, then you prosecute the crime,” says Trimble. “But curfews and similar policies often imply that every kid is involved in criminal activity.”

In fact, the existence of such a premise peppered a 1997 status report on curfews conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Most respondents had a favorable opinion of such policies, and many of their reasons for doing so echoed that of a Jacksonville, N.C., official who wrote, “[A curfew] provides officers with ‘probable cause’ to stop youth.”

Such a premise also seems to accompany local use of youth curfews. “If we get a specific call and there’s a group of youths there, but we didn’t observe them doing anything other than being out after curfew . . . [the curfew] gives us the ability to arrest anybody who’s there,” explains Troy Police Chief Nicholas Kaiser.

photo:Alicia Solsman

The small number of cities (less than 10 percent of respondents) that voiced a negative appraisal of curfews often cited reasoning similar to Trimble: In the words of a respondent from Richmond, Calif., curfews “treat all youth as violators [and] turn off good kids.”

Although Kaiser says curfew-related arrests are few and far between in Troy (one of several cities in the Capital Region to have such a curfew), he says that the policy is still useful—if not oft-used—as a tool for dealing with difficult-to-enforce crimes of the quality-of-life variety, such as complaints about noise or loitering.

Kaiser added that the curfew does have its downside, as the political hype surrounding a curfew’s introduction often leads people to believe their city will become kid-free after a specified time of day.

“[Having a curfew] raises the level of expectation of the public,” explains Kaiser. “Now, when the public sees a kid of a certain age out after the hours, they say the cops aren’t doing their job.”

According to Schenectady Police Department spokesman Brian Kilcullen, it’s not uncommon for curfew enforcement to take a backseat to other police duties.

“[Making a curfew arrest] would tie up several police officers for a number of hours who would then be unable to respond to other calls that came in,” said Kilcullen, concluding that while the city’s curfew is on the books, it is “not practical to enforce.”

In many towns and cities, however, the introduction of curfews and other restrictions targeting teenage youth are still popping up year after year. And it’s the popularity of such measures among city officials—despite overwhelming evidence that suggests they’re either ineffective or an unnecessary burden on local police—that’s so troubling, according to Terry O’Neill, a local lawyer, criminal justice professor and member of Albany’s Community Accountability Board.

“Curfews put [local police officers] in the uncomfortable position of having to scoop young people off the street,” explains O’Neill, adding that police officers’ groups have long supported an alternative method of dealing with youth: Creating clubs and athletic leagues active during the evening hours. The problem with curfews and similar policies that cities have recently developed an affinity for, says O’Neill, is that they “relieve parents of the responsibility of knowing where their kids are later in the evening.”

While O’Neill says it’s not unreasonable for young people to be treated differently in the eyes of the law, the nature of that difference has shifted in recent years—with the most dramatic shifts occurring in the wake of highly publicized youth crimes like the murders committed in 1999 in a Columbine, Colo., high school. Where the treatment of juvenile crime once stressed rehabilitation over punishment, “enormously publicized incidents of outrageous violence by young people” have increased the public’s tolerance for harsh restrictions on youth, says O’Neill.

And while such policies have been successful in attracting tough-on-crime votes from constituents (without affecting anyone of voting age), O’Neill says the societal implications of such a trend may negate the benefits of youth services in other areas.

According to O’Neill, years of working with law-enforcement officials and teaching criminal justice have taught him that “the more you try to regulate people’s behavior by formalizing it in laws, the more we don’t count on people to behave themselves because they want to be respected by their neighbors.”

Also, he adds, such policies “tend to foster a negative attitude in young people regarding law enforcement.”

And while an informal survey of local youth would seem to indicate that there is indeed such an attitude regarding law enforcement, the teenage set’s perspectives on the growing number of restrictions they face may not be the response older generations—and the media—would expect. In fact, for some youth, condemnation of the curfews and other restrictions that have made many of yesterday’s rites of passage today’s illegal activities often comes after careful consideration of the policies’ benefits.

“What it comes down to, is that the people making the rules never seem to actually talk with the people those rules are affecting,” shrugs 19-year-old Ralph Santoro, a 2004 graduate of Guilderland Central High School.

Santoro, his friend Chris Hojohn, and girlfriend, Danielle Cerniglia, say they understand the “few bad apples” rationale behind curfews and other youth-targeting restrictions. But they argue that few people take the time to see the big picture being painted by such a trend in legislation. One after another, the teens reel off stories about policies and restrictions that have kept them from experiencing many of the same things their parents—and older siblings—consider defining moments of their youth.

“When my parents were trying to teach me how to ride my bike, they took me to Lynnwood [Elementary School] one weekend,” says Hojohn. “I was on the bike about five minutes before someone came out of the school and told us we couldn’t use their parking lot. They said they couldn’t risk us suing them if I fell and hurt myself.”

Years later, says Hojohn, high-school rules requiring that all students be supervised at all time while on school grounds (also due to liability concerns) often resulted in a daily race to find a teacher willing to stay at school for the hour between the end-of-classes bell and the meeting time for a club Hojohn had joined. This, combined with school policies around many of the region’s various districts forbidding students from leaving and returning to school grounds during the day, often makes attendance an “all or nothing” arrangement, adds Cerniglia.

As Hojohn discovered at Lynnwood Elementary School, similar policies regarding supervision often apply to school grounds outside of the main complex, too, subtracting the ability to shoot hoops, practice a penalty kick or simply go for a run around the school’s track from the pool of viable weekend and after-hours activities.

Of course, growing concerns about liability have tainted more than just schoolyard-use policies. Bans on skateboarding have been proposed—and passed—on public and private property in municipalities around the region, while cities like Buffalo have gone as far as to propose a citywide ban on the activity.

Additionally, the added security and monitoring required for hosting all-ages music shows has made such events a far less attractive arrangement, agree several local club owners, especially since beer and liquor receipts tend to provide the bulk of any show’s profits. In the years before he turned 18, Santoro says he noticed fewer and fewer options every year when it came to shows that welcomed his peers, and looked forward to turning 18 simply because there would be “more to do.”

So, what options are available to teens when the weekend comes and they can’t be outside due to curfew restrictions, can’t be on school grounds, can’t use their skateboards, can’t go to the mall and can’t catch a performance by a local band?

Well, the answer might not be to “get a job,” either.

According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, juvenile employment rates have been dropping around the country since 1977. A recent federal report on trends in youth employment states that this decline began with the “economic downturns” of the early 1980s and has continued since that time. The same report also determined that children in multiparent households were more likely to have a job, and hypothesized that the availability of a car or family- provided transportation to and from a job is a major factor for teens in finding—and keeping—employment.

Add to that cost-cutting policies running rampant and unemployment rates forcing older, more experienced workers to consider the retail and entry-level jobs once dominated by juveniles, and many teens who want jobs aren’t able to find them.

“When you were 15 years old, you probably could have gotten a job if you wanted one,” explains Tom Ciancetta, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Schenectady. “People don’t realize that if you’re 16 years old and try and walk into any place now, they don’t want you.”

Ciancetta, who says the restrictions placed on youth have made his organization “the only game in town” for the under-18 crowd, says he often hears that the job pool for youth is getting shallow. Federal funding for summer employment programs is shrinking, he says, and the opportunities available to kids are doing likewise.

For the until-recently-underage trio, there’s some agreement with that assessment.

“It’s creating a situation where it’s a hassle to go out and do anything,” laughs Santoro, “but then people complain that kids spend too much time inside playing video games or watching TV.”

“When you put everything together, there just aren’t as many options as people think,” adds Hojohn.

And on Friday and Saturday nights at Crossgates Mall, those options have shrunk again.

“Are you kidding me?” asks the 18-year-old boyfriend of a girl asked to leave the mall by a green-jacketed member of Crossgates’ “customer relations team.” The girl is a year younger than her companion, and will have to cut her shopping trip short on this, the first day of the mall’s 4 PM “Must Be 18” curfew.

The mall representative smiles and nods as the couple tells him they need to buy a birthday gift for a friend and were able to get to the mall only after work, and then he ushers them toward the door. When they arrive at the mall’s giant glass doors, the boyfriend pauses, sets his jaw and begins to turn around, looking as if he plans to make one final, angry protest of the new mall policy. Several members of the local media who had been chatting near the doors converge on the threesome, cameras rolling and microphones ready to capture a potential moment of angry youth.

Looking around at the huddling media, the teenager bites his tongue and turns back around to face the doors.

“Don’t worry about it,” says the girl, grabbing his arm and pulling him out into the entranceway. “They just want to feel like they’re more mature than us.”

rmarshall@metroland.net


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