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Control Issues

With all the curfews, dress codes and other restrictions being imposed on kids, are we raising a generation of upstanding citizens--or future leaders of a police state?

January 01, 1998|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Nicole Eklund, a 16-year-old cheerleader from Simi Valley, coming of age has meant getting used to police dogs sniffing for drugs at her school locker, dress codes proscribing bare midriffs, and an official 10 p.m. curfew seven days a week.

Leaders in her community--a suburb so benign she calls it "Anytown, USA"--have expelled a kindergartner for bringing a pink squirt gun to school and are considering, as state legislators plan to, a daytime curfew for people under age 18.

What's more, living in California, she now is subject to a $75 fine and community service if she ever smokes a cigarette, even if her parents give it to her. Friends applying for their first driver's licenses this year likely will be restricted from driving late at night or with other kids. Those who engage in vandalism or graffiti may not be able to obtain licenses at all and may have to stay home looking at blank TV screens--if their parents can program a V-chip.

In Nicole's opinion, some of these efforts miss the mark. She thinks adults should be preparing their children for the real world instead of overprotecting them. "People learn by experience and mistakes," Nicole says.

Nevertheless, emboldened by First Baby Boomer Bill Clinton--who has endorsed daytime curfews, smoking bans and school uniforms--adults across the country are experimenting with unprecedented controls in an effort to both protect and punish the young, especially teenagers.

Only a few years ago, it was fashionable to talk about children's rights, one of Hillary Clinton's original passions. "We're not talking about children's rights today," says William Strauss, a political commentator in Washington, D.C. "We're talking about the right of the principal to probe into their lockers and the duty of the child not to put anything in that locker."

High courts already have ruled that some efforts have gone too far in restricting liberties, but in general the controls are being met with open arms.

"The thing that's remarkable is that there's no single ideological group you can point the finger at for this renaissance of enthusiasm for authority," says UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, whose book on juvenile crime will be published this year. "It's a little bit 'the New Democrats have discovered family values,' a little bit 'the terror of youth violence' and a little bit of people now interested in making laws for other people's kids."

"The public perception is that it isn't like it used to be, that kids are doing more and more bad things at a younger and younger age, and the things they are doing are worse than ever before," adds professor Thomas Nazario of San Francisco, a specialist in children's law. "It is worse," Nazario believes. "The only question is how much worse."

Zimring disagrees. He contends that fear of youth violence--often the genesis of curfews and dress codes--has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of the "increase" in youth violence since the mid-1980s, Zimring says, can be attributed to a reclassification of minor attacks as more serious ones. While still disturbing, even those figures have been declining in recent years.

However, in a recent survey of American cities, many officials attributed dramatic decreases in juvenile crime precisely to an increase in restrictions on children, namely daytime and nighttime curfews.

An estimated 35 regional jurisdictions, including the city and county of Los Angeles, have daytime curfews, also known as anti-truancy laws, requiring children to stay off the streets during school hours. The majority of schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District have implemented policies requiring students to wear uniforms. New laws, rules and policies are gaining steam almost everywhere.

* In Long Beach, parents' enthusiasm for school uniforms, required at every elementary and middle school for the past three years, spread this fall to a high school where freshmen will begin a four-year phase-in.

* At the nation's largest mall, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., teenagers under 16 must have chaperons after 6 p.m.

* This summer in King's County, Wash., law enforcement officials used a helicopter to find and arrest underage drinkers partying in secluded areas.

One of the most puzzling and ironic aspects of the new wave of controls is that they are being proposed and enforced by the Summer of Love generation, one of the most pampered and individualistic groups of children ever raised (see accompanying story). Some suggest the controls may be a reaction to the disarray in the boomers' own lives.

When social problems appear overwhelming, adults historically have grasped at whatever controls are handy, says psychologist Lawrence Steinberg of Philadelphia, who is studying national juvenile justice reform. Steinberg notes that clothing is a frequent target.

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