In Ocean City, a rite of passage

Seniors: The town prepares for thousands of new high school graduates eager to make the most of their first taste of life away from home.

June 03, 2000|By Chris Guy and Howard Libit | Chris Guy and Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - Jane Hall has been at this beach business a long time, and one thing she can tell you is that she is not scared of a bunch of teen-agers. Not even the boys.

OK, so it's a whole dizzy, jubilant, wacky horde of just-graduated high school kids, 100,000 boys and girls bent on testing the limits of good taste and good sense - not to mention terrifying their parents - in a debauched first blast of freedom from family and school.

Every June, in a three-week bash known collectively as Senior Week, it's the boys who seem most worrisome to the police, merchants and landlords of Maryland's favorite resort.

FOR THE RECORD - The photographs accompanying an article in yesterday's editions about graduating students at Ocean City were credited incorrectly. They were taken by Art Baltrotsky.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Conventional wisdom says it's the boys who are most likely to be illicitly guzzling beer like there's no tomorrow, blasting hip-hop and rock music at all hours, staggering down the Boardwalk, trashing cramped apartments with all-night parties, throwing up in somebody's front yard, sleeping from 5 a.m. till after noon, piercing or tattooing body parts, and hooting and hollering at girls from balconies and porches all over town.

Lots of landlords spell it out right up front in the city's official "Young People's Weekly List 2000" - Girls Only.

Not Jane Hall. She has raised two sons and four foster children, all boys. She owns Jane's Apartments on 11th Street and is resident manager of another small apartment complex on the bay side that she rents mostly to college kids who're in town for summer jobs.

She does not flinch at boiling levels of testosterone produced by young guys intent on partying.

"You give them a decent property and mostly they respect it," Hall says. "You treat them well, they'll treat you well. I tell them I'm their mother and their fairy godmother, I watch them close and I can be a B-I-T-C-H. They keep me young."

As for the other gender, despite conventional wisdom, it's the endless giggling Boardwalk parade of girls who're most likely to be illicitly guzzling beer like there's no tomorrow, blasting music at all hours, sleeping all day, piercing or tattooing body parts, and hooting and hollering from balconies and porches all over town.

Only the girls don't seem to be as dangerous to themselves or rental property. At least that's the theory.

Paul Brown is one who swears by it. He's the man every parent of a teen-age girl who's headed for an unsupervised week at the beach wishes she'd known about. He has run the Sea Spray apartments on 35th Street for 37 years, and he doesn't mess around on Senior Week.

He has a list of rules every girl reads at check-in. Rule No. 1 is: No Visitors After Midnight. More important, he's there all the time.

"The trick is to stay up with them until 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning to make sure our girls get back where they're supposed to be," Brown says. "I never thought I'd say this, but the last few years, the kids have been getting better."

A lot of people are saying the same thing - barely contained rowdiness that once ruled the beach and boards has been curtailed. And well it should be; Ocean City has put forth a huge public-private effort to rein in illegal alcohol consumption and give kids alternatives.

The turning point, said merchants and city officials, came in 1995 when five young people died in alcohol-related incidents, including a 21-year-old man who tried to do handstands on the rail of a 12th-floor balcony.

"I'd been on the Boardwalk 20 years, and what I was seeing was not good," says Mayor Jim Mathias, who owns a downtown T-shirt shop. "We were failing to manage our community. We were losing our family image. It was like `Animal House.'"

Since then, city police have handed out more than 14,000 citations for underage drinking (3,400 in 1998 was the peak) in a program called RAAM (Reducing Alcohol Availability to Minors). It has been four years since there was an alcohol-related fatality, although a 22-year-old Baltimore man who had graduated from the Johns Hopkins University last month was hospitalized with a broken tail bone after falling from a hotel balcony Thursday night.

"We want parents to know that Ocean City isn't soliciting these kids to come down and then just letting them go - lock 'em up or scrape 'em up," says Jay Hancock, a city police spokesman.

In addition, Worcester County, the city and local merchants sponsor Play It Safe, a month of free activities for seniors that includes everything from concerts to in-line skating, midnight bowling or laser tag. Last summer, 3,200 teens took advantage of the freebies.

Both programs have been promoted to parent and student groups at schools across the region. And city and county officials and local volunteers are in Louisville, Ky., this weekend, where the programs are up for awards in the All-America Cities competition.

Of course, plenty of drinking continues to go on, but teen-agers are wary of the possible $500 fine and mandatory court appearance that comes with each civil citation. The appearance of anybody resembling authority produces a hasty retreat indoors or a shove of beer cans out of sight.

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