At 2 o'clock on a Friday afternoon at Arundel Mills mall, sun streamed through the skylights illuminating the vast food court. Snacking shoppers filled fewer than half of the brightly hued chairs. And in the relative quiet, the Winter family of Friendship Gardens had a peaceful lunch.
"We're a mall family," said Bill Winter, 33, a truck driver. "We come here and just wander. It's a place where you can take your children, out of the weather, and they can run around. You can get some exercise, have something to eat, have some family time."
Four hours later, after darkness had blanketed the food court skylights, Arundel Mills had become a busier, louder - and considerably younger - place.
A trio of teenage boys piled their trash onto trays and slinked away, leaving one boy behind with the trays.
"Hey!" he bellowed across the food court at his guffawing buddies, as he sullenly collected their garbage. "You triflin', yo."
Across the aisle, another teenager hurriedly filled out an application for after-school work at Popeyes.
"Damn," he yelled, scratching through a line with his pen. "I [expletive] up already."
Ask Bill Winter and he'll tell you: This is exactly why he and his wife shop during the day, before Anne Arundel County's teenagers are freed from the confines of high school classrooms and descend on the Hanover mall in jostling packs.
"The impoliteness, the loud and rowdiness," said Winter. "They're actually screaming at the top of their lungs. Or they'll walk six across the aisle to where you can't walk. They need to learn respect. That's why we don't come on Friday or Saturday nights. It's very nice to be able to come to the mall without the kids running around being a nuisance."
Long a staple of suburban culture, malls are a de facto town green for teenagers across the country. Teens are lured to malls, places to see and be seen, by retailers that cater to them, cheap food and entertainment, and accessible spaces in areas where there are few other places to go.
But incidents such as Tuesday's stabbing of a 17-year-old boy at The Mall in Columbia have refocused the spotlight on young people. Their presence in malls - many times in high-energy groups - leaves some adult shoppers and merchants intimidated.
From her post at a first-floor jewelry kiosk in Towson Town Center, Samikshya Mahat, 18, says she has seen quite a few scary incidents over the past year.
"I've seen a girl and a guy fighting. I've seen a guy pull out a hammer during a fight," said Mahat, who works at the Silver and Stone House. "There's a lot of high school and middle school kids here for no reason, and they start to fight."
Winter acknowledges that he, too, was a mall rat, growing up in small-town Golden Ring. His friends, he confesses, sometimes shoplifted.
"So, I'd rather see [teenagers] at the mall than have them out in the woods drinking or getting high or breaking in somewhere," Winter said, stopping to wipe ketchup from his 5-year-old daughter's face. "But when I hear that kind of language now, I stop 'em and I'll be like, 'Excuse me. I have little children here. Can you watch your language?' They should understand: You're not 5 years old. You're not allowed to run around screaming and jumping on things, cussing and carrying on."
Malls have also been the scenes of serious crimes in recent years.
In February 2005, a popular St. Paul's teacher and dean was killed during a botched robbery in the parking lot at Towson Town Center. A teen was stabbed to death at the mall in 2002.
In November 2006, a 16-year-old Annapolis High School student and a U.S. Secret Service agent were shot and wounded by an 18-year-old at Westfield Annapolis Mall.
Two teenagers have been charged in last week's nonfatal stabbing at The Mall in Columbia, which police believe was drug-related.
Paco Underhill, author of the book Call of the Mall, noted that the type of violence that occurred at The Mall in Columbia could have occurred anywhere.
"It could have happened in a school parking lot," said Underhill, CEO of Envirosell in New York City. "The fact that it happened at the mall is testament to it being the town center."
And not all crowds of kids are alike, some teenagers lament. Just because they are in the mall, in a group, cussing and cracking up, does not mean they are going to stab someone.
"Most of the time, when adults see a pack of kids, they think we're here to start trouble," said Catherine Burgett, 14, a freshman at Meade High School. "We're just hanging out."
Catherine and her pals are typical of many teen suburban mall-goers. She and Amber Dowling, 14, and Justine Spencer, 15, strolled Arundel Mills in slim jeans, printed hoodies and colorful beads from Hot Topic, giggling and shrieking and bumping each other. They walked four across - Catherine, then Amber, then Justine, who was glued to her boyfriend, Emerson Pineda, 15.
"Sometimes we're loud, yeah," said Emerson. "We're loud because we're having fun. You can't expect to see adults at a bar not being loud."
That may be true, some shoppers said. But a mall is a mall, not a bar.
"It's just more relaxing before they get out of school," said Erica Harrison, 29, of Randallstown, who stopped at American Eagle on her lunch break to buy a pair of leather gloves and a sweater. "When you come when they're off, it's louder; you can't hear. You're bumping into them."
Such complaints have led 51 malls across the country to implement teen curfews or escort policies, requiring young people to be accompanied by adults after a certain hour, according to the International Council on Shopping Centers.
"It's such a delicate balancing act because these kids, they spend a lot of money in these malls," said Doug Fleener, president of Dynamic Experiences Group, a retail consulting firm in Lexington, Mass. "So they need to make sure that they don't exclude these kids, especially certain merchants, but they also need to make sure that it's a comfortable environment for all shoppers."
The Mall of America in Minnesota was the first to institute an escort policy in 1996.
In Maryland, Hunt Valley Towne Centre requires patrons 17 and younger to be accompanied by an adult 21 or older after 9 p.m. in the center's common areas.
At The Avenue at White Marsh, those 15 and younger must be accompanied by an adult while in the common areas after 9 p.m.
"We're seeing more and more of it," said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council on Shopping Centers. "This is in response to unruliness. Teens view malls as a center to congregate, a place to hang out, and when they group together en masse, they can intimidate other customers."
But such policies are not the norm, experts say, because many malls view teenagers as a captive audience and a crucial demographic in a day and age where teen consumer spending reaches into the billions of dollars.
"Adults always see children as a problem," Emerson said.
In reality, Catherine said, "we just want to have fun."
Sun reporters Sumathi Reddy, Julie Scharper, Tyeesha Dixon and June Arney contributed to this article.