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After more than a month of study and public criticism, the Mall of America has decided to put a controversial parental escort policy into effect starting Sept. 20.

The policy requires youths under the age of 16 to be escorted by a parent, or adult age 21 or older, after 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Security staff stationed at each of the suburban megamall's 24 entrances will check IDs and eject any unsupervised youths under 16.Mall officials began studying an escort policy because some tenants and customers complained that unsupervised youths were causing trouble at the mall. Although many think of the Bloomington shopping center as a public place, it is private property, which means that mall officials have the right to set rules such as curfews.

In June, when mall officials first confirmed that they were studying the plan, it was criticized by some community leaders as racist. But mall officials have defended the plan.

"This is a fair policy that is not singling anyone out," spokeswoman Teresa McFarland said. "It's going to be applied to all kids across the board."

Mall officials spent Monday talking to community groups about the plan. McFarland said the mall decided to implement the policy after studying the dynamics of weekend nights at the mall and looking at the experiences of a few malls elsewhere in the country that have used similar policies.

McFarland said that on winter weekend nights more than 2,000 kids flood the mall; the number falls to about 1,000 during the summer. Customers and tenants have complained that youths have blocked store entrances, intimidated other shoppers and sometimes walked in groups that swell to up to 50.

"Other malls have some of these problems, but we're 10 times bigger, and our problems are 10 times bigger," McFarland said.

Teens say they go to the mall because it's warm in winter and cool in summer; their friends are there; there are things to do, and it's safer than the streets.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service.