O.C.'s ready for our teens

Going Out

May 23, 2004|By Susan Reimer

BEACH WEEK IS a summer tradition dating to the 1960s, and possibly beyond, during which high school seniors gather, commune-style, in Ocean City for a week of decompression after graduation.

For Maryland kids, it is a rite of passage -- a week in the sun and away from parents, a week to celebrate their status as newly minted adults.

I offered my daughter $1,000 if she would agree not to go.

She laughed at me. And so did my fellow mothers.

Did I really think any amount of money would keep her at home -- safe -- when her friends were testing the limits of the law and good judgment at the beach?

"I understand the anxiety of parents," says Ocean City Mayor James Mathias Jr., who went to Beach Week with his Calvert Hall College High School buddies in 1969. "It is a challenging week. But it is a vital part of growing up and maturing. And it is an exhilarating time in their lives."

Yeah, right. I am thinking: Love the growing up and maturing part of Beach Week. Hate the booze, drugs and sex part.

"We're very pro-active," says Ocean City Police Chief Bernadette DiPino, who will have her 105 seasonal officers out in force as something like 100,000 teen-agers from Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania come and go during three weeks in June.

(Beach Week is more like Beach Month because of the staggered graduation dates of schools in the region.)

"We are always busy in the summer, but we are not any more busy in June," said the chief. "Ninety-five percent of the kids are well behaved. They just want to socialize."

The best way to keep teen-agers out of trouble is to keep them busy, and Ocean City initiated the "Play It Safe" program about a dozen years ago to accomplish just that. There are free activities -- everything from dances and kayaking to all-night bowling and basketball tournaments. Last year, 10,000 teens participated in more than 46 free events.

Any teens who participate in "Play It Safe" are issued wrist bands that allow them to ride the Ocean City buses for free, though it only costs $2 to ride all day.

That's another goal during Beach Week: keep the teens who might be impaired off the road.

The Maryland State Police sends reinforcements to handle problems on the road so the Ocean City police can be available to respond to calls from annoyed neighbors and to patrol the Boardwalk and the buses in uniform and in plain clothes.

"Public safety is everything to Ocean City," says Michael Noah, executive director of the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"And that's especially true when Moms and Dads send their children to us."

DiPino's officers visit high schools throughout the year and meet with seniors to let them know what the city's expectations are for Beach Week.

"After seven years watching Beach Week, my personal opinion is that 99.9 percent of our young people are good. They just want to have a good time," said Noah. "They have put in their time at school and they want a chance to decompress."

"The kids are getting smarter and smarter and there is a lot less trouble," says DiPino, who has been on the Ocean City force for 19 years.

But the kids are under the legal drinking age and don't have much experience with alcohol. "They have never been away from home and they don't know how to act when under the influence," DiPino said.

Police say 80 percent of their alcohol-related calls for the year -- noise complaints, disorderly conduct, bar fights -- occur in June. Part of this is because rules are strictly enforced with so many minors in town, DiPino said.

Alcohol is at the root of just about any Beach Week trouble, so the city and the police work closely with the hotels, restaurants and package goods stores to reduce the flow to underage drinkers.

Though watchful, the authorities in Ocean City appear to have a generous and benign attitude toward the horde of 18-year-olds that invades each June.

Most of them, like Mayor Mathias, are Beach Week survivors themselves.

"I was a Beach Week person, and I grew up to be gainfully employed," says Donna Abbott, media services manager for Ocean City. "These graduates will grow up and have their own families and, hopefully, vacation with us down the road."

Noah refers to them as "our future customers."

"They are much appreciated here," said the mayor, whose own daughter, Lauren, attended Beach Week after she graduated in 1999, albeit only 65 blocks from home and with Dad listening on his police scanner.

"But we are on high alert and we will be highly visible and there will be strict enforcement of the laws.

"Tell your young people the mayor is cool and his phone number is in the book and he answers his own phone.

"But tell them, too, that they need to use their common sense. They need to listen to that internal alarm.

"If something just isn't right, if it wouldn't pass the at-home test or the Mom-and-Dad test, then walk away."

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