Every June, thousands of recent high school graduates from the Washington suburbs flock to the shore for a week of sand, sun, and new freedom.
But celebratory fun is not all that awaits the teens during the much anticipated Beach Week, according to two police officers from Dewey Beach.
Alcohol poisoning, sexual assault, robberies, and criminal records are among the pitfalls that Sgt. Clifford Dempsey foreshadowed to more than 250 seniors and parents gathered in the cafeteria at Walter Johnson
High School Monday night.
“Parents may think, ‘What’s the big deal? We’re sending them to college soon anyway,’” he said. But a beach town is nothing like a school campus, he explained, where there are resident assistants, campus security, and class schedules to keep teens in check.
The beach is an “uncontrolled environment” with a large concentration of kids and garbage pails full of jungle juice.
Dewey is one of several beach towns that is besieged by under-aged revelers every June. More than 2,000 recent graduates a week come to Dewey in in June — from Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
The Montgomery County parents and teens came to meet with the police officers and learn more about what’s at stake. The event was organized by a parent group at Walter Johnson and pitched as “an open discussion” about Beach Week: “The Real Story.” Parents were also invited from Bethesda Chevy Chase, Walt Whitman, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Wootton High Schools. Senior week is not endorsed by the school system or any individual school.
On the warm spring evening, the nearness of graduation felt palpable, and students wearing lacrosse shorts and and tee-shirts emblazoned with Cornell and Maryland, laughed with the parents. The mood strained as the evening wore on, though.
Dempsey and Lt. William Hocker described how the police prepare for the onslaught of under-age drinkers each year with three paddy wagons that pass for overflow jail cells and more than 20 additional seasonal officers.
Last year, the Dewey Police made 120 arrests for under-age drinking, more than the University of Delaware — a reputed party school. This year, they said, they have extra funding to pay overtime to enforce under-age drinking laws.
The officers listed the range of punishments for a range of infractions, including under-age drinking, under-age possession of alcohol or drugs, breaking curfew, disorderly conduct, violating noise ordinances, loitering, j-walking.
For 18-year olds, such violations can lead to pricey fines or lasting criminal records. For 17-year olds, they could mean late-night phone calls to parents who have to drive through the night to pick them up from jail, and then, months later, an appearance in a Delaware family court.
After the session, students and parents split up to ask questions.
“Maybe this sounds naive, but where do they get the alcohol?” asked one parent, after the teens filed out. Dempsey said they typically bring it in, sometimes filling huge suitcases with cases of beer. “They have it planned out in December how they will get the beer,” he said.
“How much fighting do you see down there?” another asked. “A lot,” Dempsey said. “I have two broken ribs from a senior week.”
“Do you cut any slack to the [drunk] kid who picks up the phone to call for help if someone is sick [from alcohol]?” Dempsey said he would, but added that he could not predict how every police officer would handle a given situation.
One parent said it sounded like the officer was advising them not to send their children at all.
“I can’t tell you not to let your kids go, but I would not want my daughter-- she’s only seven now -- to be anywhere near that town,” he said. “My personal opinion, I don’t think it’s worth it.”
Afterwards, parents said the meeting was eye-opening. To others, the zero-tolerance policy seemed to send a message: Don’t go to Dewey. But, others figured, the other beach towns are likely to be as strict.
Some parents said they planned to rent a house near their children, or that one adult was going to stay in the house with the teens (which many of the rental agreements stipulate), or that they had a plan for a friend or relative in the area to check on them. One group of parents hired a chaperone.
The organizers handed out talking points for parents and teens that covered the relevant laws and responsibilities for the rental property, along with a customizable pledge for seniors to sign that listed rules such as no parties at the house and no overnight guests.
“Kinda morbid,” said one Walter Johnson senior. “But I really want to go.” He and his friends had not found a house to rent yet, and his mother, and his friends’ parents, were still undecided about whether they should go at all. They lingered in the folding chairs after the session, weighing the risks involved.
“We’re still talking,” said his mother, Michelle Olive.