PORT RICHEY — The Girl Scouts wandered into Rack Room Shoes at Gulf View Square mall Wednesday searching for a pair of red high heels for a scavenger hunt. When they asked the sales associate on duty, David Kennedy, if he could also help them find an orange necktie and a piece of tape, he was glad to oblige.
Kennedy even cut a button off of his pants for the scouts.
"They were absolutely the best people I dealt with all day long," Kennedy said Thursday. "They were the sweetest girls. They were so respectful. They had manners."
But a security guard kicked them out of the mall.
Some time after the girls left Rack Room in search of a turquoise flamingo, a security guard walked into the store and told Kennedy's manager some girls had been told to leave. Kennedy listened with interest, thinking the guard had caught some would-be shoplifters or rowdy kids. Instead, he learned that the girls he had just helped — ages 9 to 11 — had been escorted off the premises because scavenger hunts are against mall policy.
Gulf View managers say scavenger hunts can disturb mall tenants. Girl Scouts and anyone else wishing to conduct scavenger hunts must receive approval from mall management beforehand, marketing director John Liu said, and the scouts had not asked permission.
Still, he said, "We regret any inconvenience or confusion this may have caused and hope to welcome the Girl Scouts back to Gulf View Square mall for a sanctioned activity soon."
Linda Nowicki, the leader of Troop 1251, says she did not know she needed to receive approval for the hunt, which was the troop's last activity of the year. The 11 junior scouts had spent half an hour in Littman Jewelers learning about gemstones to earn their jewelry badge, then split into two groups to hunt for a crystal gorilla and other items.
The team chaperoned by troop co-leader Christine Karvonen had just found an image of Marilyn Monroe, the last item on their checklist, when the guard approached Karvonen and said they had to stop taking pictures. Karvonen told him they were done anyway. It wasn't until she and Nowicki tried to buy Icees for the girls at the food court, however, that he told them they had to leave.
"What do you think you're doing?" he said, Nowicki recalled. "You did something wrong. You have to leave the mall." Nowicki said the guard added, "You're lucky you're not banned from this mall forever."
As he spoke, Karvonen's 9-year-old daughter Marissa began to cry, and the other girls looked "mortified," Karvonen said.
"My girls were pretty scared, because they respect authority," Nowicki said. "They were so apologetic. The security guard did not act, in my book, appropriately."
So while Nowicki canceled the Icees order and talked to the guard, Karvonen and another co-leader ushered the girls outside to meet their parents, who had been shopping in the mall and who now say they will send letters of complaint to the manager. Karvonen made light of the situation — even taking a photo of the girls outside the mall and using her computer to turn the photo into a "Wanted" poster — but she says the girls never disturbed the tenants.
Since the mall was nearly empty, store managers seemed happy to have people browsing: A Victoria's Secret saleswoman even gave all the girls free perfume samples.
Nowicki had even warned the girls they would be docked points for disturbing any shoppers or salespeople. (Nobody lost any points on that account, but one team did win by 15 points.)
As for Karvonen's daughter Marissa, tears had turned to laughter by the time the two reached home. "Marissa's a little felon,'' Karvonen joked, "getting kicked out of the mall!"
Vivian Yee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6236.