By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006
OCEAN CITY -- The sun slipped behind the hotels that line the boardwalk here. Sad-eyed Russian shopgirls beckoned from doorways of henna tattoo parlors and piercing booths, tempting newly emancipated teenagers with some of the bad choices their parents had warned them about. Across from them lay the alternative: a gaggle of matronly volunteers at folding tables in the sand with a karaoke machine, free pizza and T-shirts that read "Play it Safe."
A new batch of high school graduates had arrived last week for the annual rite of unchaperoned decadence known as Beach Week.
Tradition has it that teenagers descend on this town before the ink has dried on their diplomas, drink heavily -- and sloppily -- before turning the family-friendly resort into something akin to a bad episode of MTV's "Laguna Beach."
But 17 years ago, civic leaders resolved to curb the more dangerous excesses of Beach Week, which draws 100,000 recent graduates from dozens of states each June to celebrate the end of high school. From sparse beginnings, the city's Play it Safe program has expanded to a roster of 60 wholesome, risk-free events. It has even gained social acceptance among the grads; participation has doubled since 2002 to about 12,500, or one grad in eight, an increase organizers attribute to just getting the word out.
"We were looking through that little green Play it Safe book, and it said, 'free bowling,' so I said, 'Let's go bowling,' " said Josh Dyer, 18, who was with a group from Westlake High School in Waldorf.
The program appeals to the child within the budding adult. Participants line up by the hundreds for free pizza and soda and for yellow wristbands that allow them free passage on Ocean City buses, which function as rolling singles clubs during Beach Week -- and keep teenagers from driving .
Many teenagers pick up their wristbands and leave. Some remain to try their hand at kayaking or windsurfing or to see how quickly they can eat a plate of pancakes.
"We can't honestly take care of all the kids that are down here. But we try," said Bev Townsend, secretary of the town's Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Committee, which runs Play it Safe in partnership with the county health department.
The wary locals who administer this three-week program know their competition: the 10,000-gallon foam parties at H2O and H2O2, a pair of well-run but steamy under-21 clubs just off the boardwalk; word-of-mouth keggers staged surreptitiously on hotel patios; and the nightly insurance nightmare that is Coastal Highway, the main drag on this splinter of land. It transforms during Beach Week into a growling procession of teenage boys in souped-up Acura coupes.
Inside H2O2, the salutatorian of a Catholic school in Scranton, Pa., danced to a skull-rattling beat with some friends inside a wrought-iron cage. Outside, police huddled around a boy of 17 crumpled in the gravel. Denied entry for his obvious drunkenness, he had pushed one officer, sprinted up Worcester Street and then bitten a second officer in the thigh. He was now bound, hands and feet, awaiting booking for assault.
"Everyone we lock up is, in one form or another, under the influence of alcohol. Everyone," said Cpl. James "Art" Grady, a 12-year veteran who stood nearby.The 'Safe' Bug
As fresh graduates arrived on the boardwalk for the second and busiest leg of Beach Week, 957 teenagers signed in at Play it Safe tables to collect their bracelets and pizza. A small crowd formed around the karaoke speakers. Some graduates leafed through a 36-page booklet called Passport to Fun, a deceptively named document that, by Page 3, is cautioning students that their seven-day bacchanal is fraught with perils ranging from date rape to drug dependency to death.
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.