Vancouver BC: Teens hit with ultrasonic whine to curb vandalism

The Province. June 6:

Vancouver businessman Mike Gibson shows off the Mosquito, a teen-repellent device that only younger people can hear.

After a string of arson attacks on Lower Mainland schools, the Vancouver School Board is fast-tracking plans to reintroduce the Mosquito, a controversial device that wards off teenagers by emitting a shrill noise that only they can hear.

“As long as you’re putting it on private property – which is what school board property is – and you’re doing it in an open, informed way, it’s fine,” said Vancouver school trustee Mike Lombardi, noting that Vancouver schools are hit with $500,000 in vandalism costs per year.

Invented in the U.K., the Mosquito exploits the gradual degradation of the human ear to zero in on a frequency that can be heard only by people between the ages of 13 and 25. Although the sound is imperceptible to older adults, teenagers often describe the noise as resembling “nails on a chalkboard.”

School board maintenance staff had installed 33 of the units by March, before complaints from neighbours and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association prompted trustees to order them all switched off.

In the weeks since, Kerrisdale Annex, an elementary school that had been equipped with the devices, had its playground charred by vandals. Over the Victoria Day weekend, vandals broke windows at another elementary school and launched an incendiary device into a classroom, causing some smoke damage.

Fires aside, Silise Lebedovich, a parent of students at Kerrisdale, told Vancouver media in early May that disabling the devices had had an immediate effect on playground safety. “The children have a right to go to school on Monday morning and not sidestep human feces, avoid needles, or see graffiti,” she told Postmedia.

To be put before a school board committee Tuesday night, the proposal to reactivate the devices comes with an official thumbs-up from Vancouver Coastal Health, as well as a legal endorsement from the Board’s lawyers. “Assuming that access to school property during the night is not a service customarily made available to any member of the public, there doesn’t appear to be any basis for a complaint of discrimination under the Human Rights Code,” reads an opinion by Vancouverbased law firm Harris and Co.

The devices can be switched on only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and must be surrounded by proper signage “to make sure there’s no misunderstanding,” Mr. Lombardi said.

Others remain unconvinced. “I don’t understand how any lawyer could come to the conclusion that a government could punish youth differently than an adult,” said David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

In a recent op-ed, Mr. Eby warned that the effectiveness of the device may soon make it irresistible for a myriad of teen-plagued businesses – transforming urban areas into a landscape of “extremely annoying noise pollution” for teenagers. “If they’re good enough for schools, why not out front of all urban liquor stores, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants?” he wrote.

The technology is certainly gaining ground. “Sales are increasing every year; this year we’ll do $800,000 of Mosquitoes,” said Mike Gibson, president of Vancouver-based Moving Sound Technologies, which manages North American sales of the device. A single Mosquito retails for $1,100.

At the Nanaimo Aquatic Centre in Nanaimo, B.C., the device was installed to clear crowds of teens blocking the front door: When the gaggle gets too thick, staff simply hit them with a five-minute burst from the Mosquito.

“It doesn’t make them bolt and run, it just creates an annoying sound,” said Mark Demecha, Nanaimo’s manager of civic facilities. “It’s funny, when we first got it, we turned it on and you could immediately see the teenagers’ heads move.”

Although it is marketed as a “ultrasonic anti-loitering teen deterrent,” the Mosquito can be toggled to play slightly lower frequencies to target loiterers as old as 65. The problem, said Mr. Gibson, is that the lower frequencies cannot be as acutely focused as the teen-only sound beams, and are more likely to bounce onto neighbouring properties.

Of course, teens can easily “beat” the device by wearing earplugs or an iPod at medium volume. In the U.K., high school students have even used the technology to their advantage by configuring their cellphones with teacher-proof ultrasonic ring tones. “All the kids were laughing about something, but I didn’t know what,” a Welsh schoolteacher told the website Gadget Spy in 2006.

Still, Mr. Gibson maintains the Mosquito can still squash the appeal of a shadowy hangout spot. “Kids aren’t going to want to hang out and not talk to their friends.”

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