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Still no decision by city on Sonic Screen debate

Will Hastings will be the first Minnesota city to incorporate Sonic Screen, an audible deterrent that can target teens, into one of its parks? The Hastings Parks and Recreation Commission doesn't have an answer.

The technology is relatively new, incorporating a high-frequency noise emitter into the playground structure. The noise can be set to such a frequency that only people in their teens or early 20s can hear. It can also be set so adults can hear it as well. It has been included in a proposal for new play equipment at Cari Park.

News of the proposal has been popular. Parks and Recreation Director Barry Bernstein told commissioners Tuesday that media outlets across the five-state area have contacted him about the measure. He even received an email from a youth rights organization in Washington, D.C., claiming Sonic Screen would be a form of age discrimination.

Commissioners didn't necessarily agree.

"I don't see it as discriminatory," said chairman Brian Schommer.

Yet he and other commissioners agreed that the comments they've received warrant further discussion.

The city attorney did not have a legal recommendation for the commission, Bernstein said, but did find legal precedence for and against installing age-specific security. Should the city decide to move ahead with Sonic Screen, "I think we have our legal backing," Bernstein said.

Bernstein asked play equipment providers to include a security aspect to their proposals because the residents had asked for it at earlier neighborhood meetings, he said.

"People are tired of going there and not knowing what to expect," he said.

The parks department has cleaned up a variety of vandalism there, from human feces and urine on the equipment to written markings and even a fire. Commissioners agreed that the issue must be addressed, but were unsure if Sonic Screen was the best way to do so. One uncertainty is in the hours the device would be used. According to the proposal, Sonic Screen would be activated by a motion sensor from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when the park is closed to the public.

"This will not do anything for early afternoon or evening," Schommer said, saying also that as a resident of the area himself, he's aware that several parents won't take their young children to the park in the afternoon or evening because of issues at those times.

He also noted that in wintertime, the park will be dark at 5 p.m., but still open. Teens are going to the park after dark in the winter, Schommer said, and Sonic Screen would be ineffective then.

Commissioner Jen Garrett said she would favor the Sonic Screen for overnight security, but was also concerned with finding a system that would offer security throughout the day.

Another option for the park is installing 24-hour video surveillance cameras or still cameras that would take photos when prompted by activity, much like a trail camera.

Commissioner Sheila Hedin emphasized the need to get the neighborhood involved in policing the park. No security system will completely eliminate vandalism, she said.

"You have to empower the neighborhood."

Commissioner Nicole Schossow suggested the possibility of installing a sign notifying park users that inappropriate behavior will be reported.

"Most of the kids going back there think nobody watches," she said.

The park is unique in that it is surrounded on all sides by private property, accessible only by a walking path, so visibility is extremely limited. That offers vandals a sense of security.

Commissioners wanted more information before making a decision, so scheduled a special meeting to further discuss the issue. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. June 22 at the Parks and Recreation Department office, 920 W. 10th St.