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Cruisin' With Mom

"I said, "Are you gonna let me take a spin on your ride?'" a teenage youth shouts to a security guard riding by on a Segway. Sporting tattoos and a Carmelo Anthony jersey, the teen cocks his head and pauses, as if he actually expects the guard to let him...
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"I said, "Are you gonna let me take a spin on your ride?'" a teenage youth shouts to a security guard riding by on a Segway. Sporting tattoos and a Carmelo Anthony jersey, the teen cocks his head and pauses, as if he actually expects the guard to let him hop on the $6,000 apparatus and whir around the upper level of the Aurora Mall. The mall cop ignores him, however, engages in a brief conversation with another shopper and then zips away.

"Where you going?" the teen calls out, then turns to his friends. "That thing's piiiimp!" he says with a laugh.

No matter how ridiculous the mall cop looks on his erect electric golf cart, trying to maintain a show of dignity as he maneuvers past the Cinnabon, it is he who will have the last laugh. Beginning Friday, September 23, he'll have the power to toss those kids out on their asses, courtesy of the Families First program, which requires that anyone sixteen or younger be accompanied by a parent or guardian after 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Unescorted teens will be subject to an ID check, and youths who aren't chaperoned by someone 21 or older will be asked to leave. If the juvies don't have a ride, officials have prepared a special room where they can call a parent and cool their heels.

The Families First program is just part of the mall's effort to transform itself from an outdated shopping backwater to a top-tier consumer destination to compete with Cherry Creek Mall and Park Meadows. By initiating policies that will lessen the number of teens (mostly minority) known to congregate in the mall's main corridor on weekend nights, officials are hoping to lure back adults and families. That's been a tough sell since June, when a shooting at the mall left one woman dead and two more wounded. Since then, the Aurora Mall -- which is scheduled to change its name in November to TownCenter at Aurora -- has been by far the most heavily fortified shopping center in the state. And on this night, two weeks before the First Families start date, the teens realize they are being watched more closely than usual as mall administrators try to get the word out about the impending curfew.

Past the cell-phone kiosks and chain stores, a kid in a Nuggets jersey looks around quizzically at the abundance of uniformed Aurora police officers and officials in white "SECURITY" shirts stationed at every turn. There are also myriad mall administrators, public-relations specialists and ID-wearing employees darting through the building, all of them squawking into walkie-talkies. But there's another kind of security force on patrol tonight, too, one even more ubiquitous and much more huggable: the Mall Moms and Dads.

"Have you heard about our new Families First program?" asks Debbie Stafford, one of the twelve "mall parents" on duty. She is smiling, always smiling. "Families First is positive," she says. "Families First says that we really respect the fact that you're important, so is your family, and we want you all here."

That message might seem contradictory to the young minorities cruising the mall's corridors. In January 2004, Simon Property Group, the national corporation that owns the mall, became embroiled in controversy after a leasing agent was secretly recorded stating that the mall was gearing up for a marketing campaign aimed at attracting white customers.

"We've never marketed to the ethnic customer; that's just what we got," the agent said to the former tenant, who owned a barbecue/soul-food joint. "We want to reduce the negative aspects of the center. One of them is the young, black customer."

The agent's comments were broadcast locally on KMGH-TV/Channel 7 and appeared on news shows nationwide, including Good Morning America. Members of the city's black community were outraged and pointed to the tape as proof of longstanding accusations that the mall's management participated in racist practices. The remark was particularly grating to City of Aurora officials, who had handed over $15 million in tax breaks over fifteen years to help Simon Property fund a $100 million rehabilitation.

Mall officials vehemently denied they were actively trying to discourage minorities from patronizing the mall, but they immediately launched a community-relations campaign and agreed to a host of concessions, including hiring a black mall manager and more minority security guards. And in November they launched the Mall Moms and Dads program.

In discussing the mall's recent troubles, Stafford avoids the subject of racism and stays relentlessly on a clear, upbeat message that reinforces the mall's efforts. Not a surprising skill, given the fact that she's not only an ordained minister, but also a politician. For the past five years, the 52-year-old Republican has represented Aurora in the state legislature. Her district, however, covers the southeastern part of the city, extending down into Arapahoe and Elbert counties, an area that differs significantly from the shopping center's current customer demographic of blacks and Hispanics. But while the mall isn't inside her district, Stafford thinks of it as part of her community and vital to Aurora.

The grandmother of five first became involved with Mall Moms and Dads after officiating at the funeral service for nineteen-year-old Krystal Martinez, who was killed on the stairs near Champs Sports while trying to break up a fight between her boyfriend and two shooters -- both of whom were twenty and wouldn't be affected by the new curfew. "I immediately made up my mind that I was not at all about to allow this isolated tragedy to impact our community in a negative way," says Stafford, who was Martinez's youth pastor at Heritage Christian Center in Denver.

She began asking groups of adults to frequent the mall and get involved in young people's lives. "Go shopping. Get down there, make your presence known," she says she told them. "Let this community know that we will not allow something like this to intimidate the citizens of our community to say, 'Well, we really don't want to go over there.'"

This is the sixth night Stafford has worked as a mall parent, and so far it's the least eventful. The mall parents are paid $15 per hour, and for that their duties include dealing with matters deemed too innocuous to be handled by mall security or uniformed police. This includes telling young punks to pull up their pants when the sagging drops to extremes. "But a lot of boys now wear those shirts that are really long," she notes, "so it's hard to tell sometimes just how low their pants are."

More blatant examples of wardrobe transgressions -- shirts or hats bearing explicit images or words, and hoods worn up over the head -- are not tolerated. In those cases, Stafford approaches the offending parties and politely asks them to turn their shirts inside out or cover them with a jacket.

"I introduce myself: 'Guys, how are ya?' I try to smile, be friendly. And then I try to explain to them whatever it is I need to say to them." She turns to the remodeled food court and thinks about this for a moment. "Yeah, I'm a mom. I just think you can love on people and let them know that they're important, and it doesn't matter the color of their skin."

Still, while the general consensus of store employees is that the program is necessary, several teens feel that Families First is unfair. "Look at this," says one young Aurora resident, pointing to a large illuminated poster of a smiling white male model on the side of the Finish Line shoe store. "They're making everything white!"

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