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State civil rights commission, NAACP raise concern about Towson mall's new teen policy

Towson Town Center is putting into place a curfew for teens starting Sept. 16, on Friday and Saturday night after 5 pm. Children younger than 18 will not be allowed in the mall without a parent or other "supervising adult." (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

The state agency that investigates civil rights complaints is raising concerns that Towson Town Center's new policy banning unaccompanied minors on Friday and Saturday nights may represent age discrimination.

The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights will meet with mall management next week and is looking at other malls' policies on teenage shoppers as well, a top official said Friday.

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"While on their face we understand the purpose of them, when we dig deeper, these policies could violate the public accommodation rights for the citizens of Maryland," said Cleveland L. Horton II, the commission's deputy director.

Horton also said the commission is aware that some believe the policy is targeted at young people of color. He said the panel wants to make sure any directive about teenagers at the mall doesn't also have the effect of discriminating based on race or color.

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Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the NAACP, said he is concerned that the policy discriminates against young people in general, and African-American young people specifically.

"It sounds like it's a discriminatory practice on its face," Fugett said, adding that the policy "may disproportionately affect African-American young folks." He said the NAACP would investigate the legality of the policy and hopes to learn more about the mall's decision to put it in place.

Under Maryland law, public accommodations such as stores and restaurants are not allowed to discriminate based on a patron's race, sex, age, color, creed, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation or disability.

Horton said the civil commission has not opened a formal investigation of the mall's policy, which was announced Thursday.

"At this point, no complaint has been filed. We're at the discussion stage," he said. "At this stage, the commission is actively discussing this matter with Towson Town Center."

If the commission decides to open an investigation and determines there is probable cause that discrimination occurred, the matter would be referred to commission attorneys for possible legal action, Horton said. The primary goal of any legal action would be to force a change in policy, he said.

Lisa Bisenius, the mall's senior general manager, said she will meet with commission officials to discuss their concerns. She declined to comment further.

Towson Town Center announced Thursday that it will implement a "parental guidance required" policy starting Sept. 16. On Friday and Saturday nights after 5 p.m., those younger than 18 will not be allowed in the mall after 5 p.m. without a parent or other "supervising adult" age 21 or older. Security guards and off-duty police officers will be stationed at the mall's 19 entrances to check identification.

The policy follows complaints from residents and elected officials about young people congregating around the mall, especially after it closes at 9 p.m.

Last December, a 16-year-old girl was charged as a juvenile with second-degree assault on a police officer after a group of rowdy young people threw rocks at officers, according to police.

Bisenius said Thursday that the mall has had "occasional" incidents involving gatherings of young people, and that the new policy is intended to promote a family-friendly atmosphere.

Horton said he understands the public safety concerns of mall management and the need to prevent unruly behavior. But that shouldn't come at the expense of all young people, whose rights are protected by state law, he said.

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Other shopping centers and movie theaters in the region also have policies against unaccompanied youths during designated evening hours. Those include The Avenue at White Marsh, the Cinemark movie theater at Towson Square, Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie and Hunt Valley Towne Centre.

Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore prohibits unaccompanied minors during the day on school days.

Mondawmin is owned by the same parent company as Towson Town Center, Chicago-based General Growth Properties. Two other GGP suburban malls, White Marsh Mall and The Mall in Columbia, do not have policies restricting unaccompanied youths.

The state's largest mall, Arundel Mills in Hanover, does not have a teen policy.

Horton said the commission was not aware of shopping center policies restricting teenage patrons until the Towson Town Center's policy was announced this week.

More than 100 malls and shopping centers across the country have policies governing when teens can shop without supervision, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a national trade organization.

The massive Mall of America in Minnesota is believed to have been the first mall to enact such a policy, in 1996.

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