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Schools are out, and malls are in


Pity the poor schoolchildren, marooned at home by yet another day of school cancellations, right?

Stay home? Not on your life.

Rain, sleet and the dread of ice may have closed Baltimore area schools, but they haven't deterred students from venturing out of home, driveway and neighborhood. Their destination of choice: area shopping malls.

Students from 7 to 17 have mobbed music stores, crammed card stores to scare up Valentine's gifts, talked to friends on pay phones, eaten pizza and snowballs or just roamed down mall escalators and halls like packs of puppies out for a spring romp.

"We're the baby sitters here," said Patti Wulff, manager of Pacific Edge at Marley Station Mall near Glen Burnie, which was jammed with teen-agers yesterday. "The parents are dropping them off at our front door, and we're watching them during regular school hours."

After as many as 11 days of school closings this year, cabin fever is getting severe.

"Staying at home is boring. There is nothing to do. You got to get out," said Ozzie Salcedo, 16, a junior at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville who was hanging out at the Columbia mall.

"The mall is the only place you don't have to pay to get in," said Ozzie. "We don't really have any money, so we just walk around, check out the stuff in the stores and maybe get something to eat."

At the Towson Town Center mall, general manager Christopher S. Schardt said the mall is a social experience for teen-agers. "They meet friends, accomplish their needs, and merchants profit from the weather," he said.

By 1:30 yesterday afternoon, 13-year-old Matt Cline, of Columbia had hooked up with a half-dozen chums at the Columbia mall. "We don't really have anything to do here but cruise around," he said. "It beats home and it beats school, though."

Students said the slippery sidewalks and roads didn't worry them. If they didn't drive themselves to the malls, they found it easy to catch rides with family members -- mostly their mothers -- or school friends.

Ozzie, the Paint Branch High school student, trekked 10 miles to Columbia with buddies Kurt Klingebiel, 16, and James Gill, 15, in Kurt's Ford Escort, not exactly an all-terrain vehicle. The mall is 10 times as far from their homes as their school is.

So, if the students could make to the mall, couldn't they have made it to school?

"If they had had school today, I could have gotten there," said Kurt Klingebiel. "Sometimes you wonder why they close school. On days like this, they should just start a few hours late."

Not that the students were complaining.

"It's sort of like a winter vacation," said Jeff Treem, 12, a student at Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia. "On some of the days we've had off, we've gone skiing in Pennsylvania. It's been great."

Dawn Gates, assistant manager for Dream Machine Arcade at the Cranberry Mall in Westminster, said school cancellations have been a boon for her business.

Movie theaters also have spotted an opportunity. The Hoyt's Cinema at Cranberry Mall opened early to accommodate an expected surge in teen-agers, younger children and parents looking for a way to spend the day.

Champions Arcade in Columbia's mall also has been mobbed with students for the last two days.

Jeff Treem, 12, and his brother Isaac, a 14-year-old Atholton High student, were part of a throng of youths punching quarters into an array of noisy games.

The brothers said they had been dropped off at the arcade by their mother, who was shopping with a friend who also had dropped her children off at the arcade.

The influx of teens into area malls boosted some business, but some store owners said the youngsters were wearing out their welcome.

"They need a leash," said Ken Sproat, assistant manager of the Pacific Edge clothing store at Marley Station Mall.

Eric Selckman, shoe department manager at Herman's World of Sporting Goods at Marley Station, watched students pack his store.

"They can't get to the school, but they can get to the mall," he said. And not all of the teen-agers were spending. They were buying "a hockey puck here, a hockey puck there," Mr. Selckman said.

Many students roamed in packs of seven or eight or just hung out near escalators, pay phones or food courts, but some came with a purpose.

Jen McManus, a 17-year-old student at Centennial High in Howard County, used the day to hunt down a Valentine's Day gift for a friend.

"The roads weren't that bad today," she said. After shopping, she planned to head to her part-time job at the county library.

Teachers, too, found their way out of the house yesterday.

Cathy Walrod, a math and language arts teacher at Dundalk Middle School, was enjoying lemonade and french fries with daughters Meghan, 12, and Brittany, 10, at Towson Town Center.

"Being here is all about survival," Mrs. Walrod said. "We wanted to get out of the house, and I needed some adult contact."

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