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Traditional hangout continues to cause headaches at South end

Youth congregate on a corner in the South-end shopping center on Mercer Island, April 8. The center fills up on many afternoons after school is out. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Youth congregate on a corner in the South-end shopping center on Mercer Island, April 8. The center fills up on many afternoons after school is out.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

A short walk from Islander Middle School is what locals know as the South-end shopping center. QFC, Rite Aid, Starbucks and a variety of local restaurants and businesses welcome shoppers from across the Island.

Unfortunately for those businesses and customers, another crowd has taken up residency. Middle school students, traveling in bunches, are spending time there after school and, in general, causing headaches. While certainly not a new problem, the traditional hangout place is an issue that does not have an easy solution.

IMS Principal Mary Jo Budzius said that socializing at the shopping center is a long-standing tradition, mostly because the stores are close to IMS and congregating is part of the natural process of becoming a teenager.

“It makes total sense why they go, but it’s the magnitude that’s causing problems,” said Budzius. She said most students will head to QFC on Mondays, after early release, and Friday afternoons, amassing in large groups in the parking lot and at various businesses.

“There’s much less impact on other days,” she said. “They are not there with ill intent, and our students make really good choices the majority of the time, but the area is just not meant to deal with the influx.”

The issue, stemming back years, does not have a clear-cut solution, but it is one which Budzius said she has talked with parents, staff and businesses at length about. In discussions with parents, she said she has encouraged them to drive by and see what is going on and possibly look into other options for the students, but understands that ultimately it is a parental choice.

“We’re just trying to bring the issue to their awareness,” she said.

The fact that school finishes at 2:50 p.m., or at 1:30 p.m. on Mondays, and that students are grouping together away from school property limits what IMS can do.

Budzius said there is the argument that having a certain amount of freedom is developmentally good for the students, and because the Island is considered safe, many parents are more OK with letting their children gather with friends at the shopping center. But she said the issue is that, in all honesty, while there are adults around, they are not there to supervise the students.

“Middle school students are pack animals; they tend to rove in large groups. That’s just who they are,” said Budzius. “But it’s those behaviors that can cause problems.”

While the students do tend to spend money at the various businesses, such as Starbucks, it is the continued hanging out after the purchase that becomes problematic.

“It isn’t that they aren’t welcome, it’s just that once they buy, what’s the next step? For most people, it’s moving on,” said Budzius. “It is an issue that doesn’t have a clear solution.”

The business owners in the area recently contacted the city with their concerns, especially over safety for the students. Cindy Goodwin, the director of Youth and Family Services, said she is working with the businesses, as well as parents and students, on the issue.

The main concern, according to Goodwin, is that a student will be hurt, and that while the businesses are not against having students in the stores, some behaviors are troubling.

“Some of it is atrocious,” said Goodwin. A majority of the students are not causing problems, she said, but some are hanging out in store aisles, making it difficult for customers to get by or opening products. Occasionally, after being asked to leave a store, students will return. Goodwin said some customers have said they specifically wait until later in the evening to shop to avoid the problem.

“They aren’t trying to trash these kids,” said Goodwin of the businesses. “We want kids to be socializing, but really it’s about changing the behavior when they are there, remembering it’s a public place.”

Goodwin said she and the businesses contacted the PTA and that flyers will be sent home with students reminding them of public behaviors, being polite and what is OK.

“The businesses don’t want to be anti-youth. They are really trying to work it out. We really want it to be a win, win,” said Goodwin. She added that the Mercer Island Police Department has been asked to drive through the area as a continued presence.

Several years ago, a former QFC manager at the South-end store decided the groups were too disruptive to business and tried to limit the hours when students could go into the store, targeting after-school hours. However, the idea was met with strong protest, according to Budzius.

Goodwin stressed that this is not something the businesses are currently looking into. Instead, they hope to educate students on how to interact in the public setting.

After-school programs, which run on Tuesdays through Thursdays, have helped to decrease the number of students heading to the shopping center, but Budzius said options on Mondays are limited because the staff meets for professional development and Fridays are always difficult because of the weekend. She said IMS has tried offering clubs and other activities, but those programs are simply not well attended. Another factor is the sheer monetary burden of creating, staffing and running such programs, something which does not make sense fiscally if students do not attend.

“I think it is a broader community issue,” said Budzius. She said while the school plays a role, finding a solution will certainly be a collaboration between the community, school, parents and businesses.

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