ARLINGTON — Walk down Olympic Avenue in downtown Arlington and you’ll see signs posted on many businesses’ doors: “3 Students In Store At A Time” above the logo of the Historic Downtown Arlington Business Association.
The signs are part of business owners’ efforts to deter disruptive behavior by local students. They point to an early release policy that began in fall 2021, in which middle- and high-school students are released at 1:15 p.m. on Fridays instead of the usual 2:30 p.m. Some visit downtown after leaving school.
Disruptions have escalated this school year, business owners said, mostly from middle-school students.
Bits’N Pieces owner Trish Sargent has seen rowdy behavior in her vintage and antique store.
“They compete with each other for who can cause the most disruption,” she said.
When asked to leave, students have gotten in the faces of Sargent and her employees and used foul language, she said. One stole a pair of shoes. Sargent said the disruptions make it difficult to run a business, adding there are other students who come into shop and are respectful.
Two doors down, at Sassafras Vintage & Gifts, students have congregated in groups of six, eight and 10, owner Judy Lowry Botts said.
“We have products for everybody; I carry things for teenagers,” she said. “It’s just we can’t have them be obnoxious and running through the store.”
The store stopped selling “pooping unicorn” squeeze keychains after students kept playing with them. Lowry Botts said most students don’t buy anything and seem to be there just to hang out. She has also seen teens yell and scream when asked to leave. She called the police on one.
Lowry Botts’ store has taken a harder line: “Only two students in store at a time,” reads the sign on the gift shop’s door.
“It’s helping we have a united front with signs,” she said.
Lowry Botts thinks more after-school activities would help. She also thinks the students would be less hyped up if the early release was moved to mid-week.
Any change to that policy seems unlikely.
Gary Sabol, a spokesperson for Arlington Public Schools, said the weekly early dismissals on Fridays of one hour and 15 minutes replaced six three-hour early release days for teacher professional development. The new schedule began in fall 2021.
A committee recommended the change to the school board after a two-year study.
“This would provide staff with important learning on a more regular and consistent basis and may include additional time for staff to connect with families,” Sabol said in an email. “Many surrounding districts already use this calendar approach.”
He said most families and staff surveyed before and after the new policy took effect preferred the new schedule. Nearly 90% of families selected Friday as the best day for early dismissal. He added the district offers sports, clubs and other activities for students.
Stilly Valley Youth Dynamics, a Christian-based nonprofit, has started a “Friday Funday” for youth twice a month. The group offers food, games and music from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. on the first and third Fridays at Legion Park.
Meanwhile, Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Chrys Sweeting met with city officials last week to discuss the impact of the early release policy.
The superintendent was invited to an upcoming Downtown Arlington Business Association meeting for further discussion. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. Dec. 7 at City Council Chambers, 110 East 3rd St. An Arlington Police lieutenant, Mike Gilbert, also plans to attend.
Arlington Health Foods, which sells supplements and vitamins, has also seen an uptick in student visitors this fall. The teens go behind the store’s tall shelves with backpacks, where owners Clara and Roger Miller can’t see them.
Clara Miller said she sympathizes with the students, who want to hang out with friends and are probably waiting for a parent to pick them up.
“They are walking around and are bored,” she said.
The disruptions seem to have eased after the signs went up. A “no backpacks” rule is also helping deter students.
“I think most importantly,” Roger Miller said, “they get the idea we’re onto them.”