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Ocean City Strives For Safer Beach Week
Elsewhere on the boardwalk, grads priced beer bongs and collected T-shirts declaring "Girls Gone Wild!" and "You looked better on MySpace." But at the karaoke table, the drink was Pepsi, and the T-shirts read "Nope to Dope" and "D.A.R.E." A mounted officer loomed in the background.
Paul, an early karaoke contestant, injudiciously chose "Poppin' My Collar," a song from Three 6 Mafia. The lyrics turned profane.
"Sorry, Paul," the DJ said over the public-address system, shutting him down. "You've just got to keep it clean today."
The next day, 173 graduates showed up for kayak races on Assawoman Bay. Among them were Kay Makishi, 17, and Kirsten Gaston, 18, from Elizabethtown, Pa. The two had earned near-celebrity status that morning after windsurfing in chilly rain.
Kirsten's brother returned from his Beach Week with pierced nipples. She arrived at hers with a group of friends from soccer and track and National Honor Society.
"Some of us," she said, "were planning to come here and get drunk for the very first time." Opportunity knocked at a party held on a children's playset outside a hotel. But both Kay and Kirsten remained sober, a decision they attributed partly to Play it Safe.
A boy at the party "was shoving a drink in my face, pretty much," Kirsten recalled, "and I kind of laughed." They had spent so much of the week at Play It Safe events, Kirsten said, that they got infected by the "safe" bug.
Change in Tactics
Fifteen or 20 years ago, recent graduates drank openly in many parts of Ocean City. Helpful hoteliers provided hand trucks for them to ferry liquor to their rooms. Alcohol citations from police numbered in the hundreds, not in the thousands, as they do today.
Things changed after June 1995, when five young people died in a 10-day span in incidents involving alcohol. Police switched tactics, enforcing liquor laws more aggressively, visiting high schools and pressuring hoteliers to do their part. Only one teenager has died an alcohol-related death since then.
This year, parents at Tuscarora High School in Frederick handed out lime-green Play it Safe pamphlets at graduation practice. Ricky Heinbuch brought his to Ocean City, along with some tips from Mother.
"She told me not to drive if I drink and to use protection if I . . . do stuff," he said, rather sheepishly.
Even today, many parents send their children to Ocean City knowing they will do things that would never be condoned back home.
A group of teenagers from Hagerstown, Md., standing outside H2O2, said they had arrived with bottles of Hennessy, Zima and an ocean-blue cognac called HPNOTIQ in the back of a Civic, all purchased by one boy's mom, for their stay at the Castle in the Sand hotel. They had never heard of Play it Safe.
But all the watchful eyes have helped to push the alcohol from view. Emily Condon, the 18-year-old salutatorian from Scranton, signed a contract when she and seven classmates checked into their three-bedroom suite at the Carousel hotel. "I have no idea what it said," she confessed, as the girls piled into a bus for the long trip up Coastal Highway.
But they knew not to flaunt the booze. Her boyfriend and his roommates were evicted from the Carousel the day before, for liquor found in the fridge in a surprise inspection. Some of them spent the night on the bus.
The girls fashioned a plan to buy them time to hide their booze in case of the dreaded knock: Answer the door in a towel. "I mean, they can't come in if you're naked," Condon said.