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Senior Week at beach creates havoc — and business

— Brent Ashley may have aged into the enforcer role at a certain point, but he still remembers when he was the miscreant.

"I was halfway up the stairs and felt the hand on my shoulder," Ashley said of the night about 40 years ago when he got kicked out of a motel for his own Senior Week infraction: trying to sneak a girl into his room.

A longtime rental property owner, and a city councilman in the beach town where thousands of high school graduates descend every June, Ashley, 62, views Senior Week the way many here do: as "a necessary evil."

"All the revenue we bring in is important to Ocean City," he said. "If you don't rent to young people in June, you aren't going to rent to anyone. The young people can be a pain, but you are cultivating the future guests. So you have to go with it a little bit."

For the stretch of beach towns running from Ocean City north into Delaware, putting up with rowdy teens means landlords, restaurants and stores can make thousands of dollars over a three-week stretch before family vacation season picks up.

The four- or five-decade-old tradition of "June bugs" swarming to the shore for a week of sun and not-always-legal fun is in the spotlight after photos emerged of Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who is running for governor, in the midst of a wild party thrown by Landon School boys in June.

The photos put in stark relief an uncomfortable truth: Many parents, property owners and other adults implicitly accept the underage drinking and largely unsupervised partying.

When the Gansler pictures went viral, Jayne Kaiser of Columbia told her 16-year-old daughter, "That's just one more reason why you're not going to Senior Week."

Kaiser, originally from Ohio, was alarmed to learn of this local tradition in which "it seems that the main activity was underage drinking." It also baffled her that so many other parents are just as disturbed by the week, but nonetheless sign rental leases for their kids and look the other way.

She and her husband took a different track, raising their daughter with the clear understanding that her high school graduation in 2015 would be celebrated some other way — perhaps by visiting the Austrian exchange student the family hosted last year.

"I feel sometimes I'm swimming upstream alone on this," Kaiser said. "But I have to do it anyway to present a consistent message with my child."

Senior Week creates problems for beach towns as well: the inevitable public drunkenness, damage to rental properties, and the potential for serious injury or even death. Alcohol, youthful indiscretion, motel room balconies and, most of all, the ocean make for a dangerous mix.

"You don't want them drinking and then later deciding to run into the ocean at night," said Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree in Columbia, which each year brings Ocean City police and beach patrol officers to speak to parents and teens about Senior Week safety.

Lt. Ward Kovacs of the Ocean City Beach Patrol can attest to the dangers: He remembers three boys driving up to the beach one year, hopping out and diving into the waves — leaving one with a broken neck.

"As I held his head to stabilize his neck," Kovacs said, "I could smell the beer on his breath."

Luckily, though, most of what Kovacs sees during Senior Week are pranks — kids seem drawn to abusing lifeguard stands, burying them in the sand and, once, piling six of them into a pyramid.

After sometimes-sheltered childhoods where even after-prom parties can be tightly scripted by parents, many teens come to the beach eager for a first taste of freedom. And most kids, of course, survive Senior Week largely unscathed, enjoying a last hurrah before childhood friends scatter to different colleges or workplaces.

"Best time of my life," said Samantha Halle, 19, now a Towson University student. She gets a dreamy look in her eyes remembering how two days after her graduation from Franklin High School in Reisterstown, she and seven friends headed down the ocean.

Halle said her parents "have a lot of trust in me" and just asked that she call once a day so they knew she was "alive and breathing." There was a lot of drinking at the hot-tub-equipped condo in Ocean City, and someone got thrown into the bay, but they did no damage to the rental or themselves, she said.

"It was just a lot of memories of being with your best friends and getting a chance to do rebellious things," Halle said. "We're still the best of friends and we wish we could do something like this again, but now that we're grown up, we all have different schedules."

Some say Senior Week can have more serious consequences. Officials in South Bethany, Del., where some Landon parents had rented a home for their sons' celebrations, criticized such practices.

Gansler, who has advocated for stricter penalties for underage drinking, said he stopped briefly at the party. He initially said he didn't think it was his place to investigate if the kids were drinking or to stop them from doing so, but subsequently said that was a mistake on his part.

The large home rented for the Landon group sits at the end of a quiet residential street; to the rear is a channel where small boats can sidle up against docks.

Barbara Sears, 59, who lives across that channel, remembers the Landon group well: "It was a really wild week."

She didn't call police because her adult sons advised her not to be "that neighbor."

"OK, don't be the old Gladys Kravitz of the street," Sears remembers thinking, referring to the nosy neighbor from the TV show "Bewitched." Besides, the party seemed "pretty much contained" from the rear of the house, she said.

Nearby Dewey Beach, Del., increasingly draws the high school graduation crowd as well — often from Bethesda, as were the Landon graduates.

Sgt. Clifford Dempsey, a spokesman for the Dewey Beach Police Department, will visit four schools in that Washington suburb in a tour of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware he's taking this winter to warn students and parents about the potential dangers of Senior Week.

"We don't paint a pretty picture of what Beach Week is about," said Dempsey, noting that his town can attract 20,000 to 40,000 revelers in June. He warns parents that, unlike in a school or home setting, beach resorts are not set up to play parent to their kids.

"We try to advocate full parental involvement, to the parents' ability," he said, with parents staying in the rental unit with the kids if possible, or nearby. He also recommends that parents write a contract outlining acceptable behavior and activities for their kids to sign.

The Landon parents drew up such a document, forbidding hard liquor and drug use but leaving beer and wine unaddressed. Dempsey said all alcohol should be off the table.

"This is not a political issue, it's a parenting issue," said Scornaienchi of HC DrugFree. "I think Gansler and the other parents sent the wrong message to their kids — they told them it's OK to break the law.

"I think it's possible for kids to go to Senior Week and not drink, but there is a lot of pressure on them," she said. "There are so many other activities in Ocean City for them, and they're free."

The Maryland resort town offers alcohol-free alternatives through its Play it Safe program.

The program started 25 years ago after tragedies involving students, including the murder of a girl and several kids falling from a balcony, said chairwoman Donna Greenwood. Some 10,000 to 15,000 kids have participated in free events such as basketball tournaments, moonlight bowling and pizza-eating contests.

Despite such efforts, kids often arrive with their own stashes of alcohol or find something of an underground economy in Ocean City, where adults will buy the liquor for them and charge a $10 or $15 fee, council member Ashley said.

Some, like Ashley, believe that too many parents want to be friends with their kids rather than discipline them. "We had occasions when the parents would back up the car [to a rental] and unload the beer," he said. Ashley interceded and told the parents to stop.

Dr. Victor Gong has seen the consequences — for the past 25 years, he has stitched up the teens and tended to other injuries at the 75th St. Medical Center in Ocean City.

The kids usually show up in groups, sometimes just for sunburns or other minor injuries, but other times dragging a friend who is severely dehydrated, passed out or worse from drinking, Gong said.

"You'll have guys getting jealous of their girlfriends, put their hands through the window," he said.

During the first half of June, 19 people between the ages of 16 and 20 were treated for alcohol abuse at Atlantic General Hospital in nearby Berlin, said spokeswoman Toni Keiser. There's no way of telling if they were Senior Week partiers, she said, and more commonly, the hospital sees minor problems during those weeks — sunburn, scooter accidents and boardwalk splinters.

Despite the problems, merchants, hoteliers and property owners recognize the young grads as cash cows. While economists have not estimated Senior Week's impact on Ocean City, the town collected more than $8.9 million in tourism-related taxes in June. The taxes are levied on such items as hotel rooms, food, tourism-related sales and amusements, though not all of that can be attributed to the graduates.

Some homeowners have refused to rent to June bugs in the past, drawing a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Association in 2000 charging discrimination. Ultimately, the General Assembly passed a law making it illegal not to rent to the 18-year-old crowd, and allowing owners to charge high security deposits.

Many owners embrace renting to teens.

"Honestly, the condos we have, they would be empty the month of June" otherwise, said Ieve Sekace, who with her husband, Joe Jobson, runs a real estate management company catering to the Senior Week crowd.

She and some other property managers increase rents for Senior Week to cover costs for security and potential property damage. Weekly rents run as high as $4,000 for a house for 15 students to $1,200 for a one-bedroom that will hold three people.

Students sign a form saying they won't drink alcohol in the rental, and they get a brightly colored wristband that can't be removed without cutting it. Security guards patrol nightly, conducting random sweeps after 10 p.m. to kick out anyone without a wristband.

Sekace said she and her husband can spot the potential troublemakers. There was a group that arrived, cocksure and driving a Hummer and, sure enough, after checkout, she found holes punched in every kitchen cabinet. Then there was a New York group that left holes in the wall and, somehow, vomit on the ceiling.

Most are good tenants, though, cleaning the units to get their deposits back. She estimated that just 10 percent damage properties in some way.

Pat Terrill of Hileman Real Estate said security deposits on properties she rents for Senior Week are double the usual $500. After 25 years in Ocean City, she discounts parents' promises that their children will be perfect tenants.

"Your son is going to leave his good sense and his virtue at the toll booth when he passes the Bay Bridge," she tells them.

The estimated $50,000 in damage reported at the South Bethany home rented by the Landon group is an outlier, rental agencies said. Usually, property damage comes in below $500.

Ocean City has sought to diversify its tourism base, and this past June, events such as a firefighters convention, an air show and a Ravens Roost gathering drew older visitors. That may have pushed some teens to other towns, said police spokesman Mike Levy, and there were 723 alcohol-related crimes in June, down from 967 last year.

In the Delaware seaside towns that tout themselves as the "Quiet Resorts," many would prefer that Senior Week rowdiness remain someone else's problem.

Michael and Jayne Dickerson, owners of Ocean Plaza Tees on Bethany Beach's commercial strip, say June is tamer in their town.

"The ones we get are real nice kids, come from nice families," Michael Dickerson said.

Susan Jones, ‎executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association, said members often discuss whether to continue catering to Senior Week or make a concerted effort to attract older, better-behaved tourists as cities such as Fort Lauderdale have.

The Florida city became spring break central for college students after the 1960 movie, "Where The Boys Are." As the tradition grew increasingly rowdier, the city decided in the 1980s that it had had enough. The mayor went on national TV to tell college kids to party elsewhere, new anti-alcohol ordinances were enacted, and, slowly, the beach was transformed into a more adult destination with a Ritz-Carlton hotel and pricey restaurants.

But Jones and others worry how businesses would make enough money to replace the Senior Week dollars during the years of transition. Other East Coast beach towns are happy to cater to teens making their annual migration.

These days, Ocean City's biggest concern is pedestrian accidents. Mayor Rick Meehan said teens can get struck by cars as they walk in a crowd or across a street. He said the city launched a preventative campaign this year and has had no fatalities, after a year in which a couple of people were killed.

Couple traffic issues with trash and other problems, and Senior Week ends up being an ordeal, Meehan said.

"When the third week of June ends, there is a sort of sigh of relief," the mayor said. "They may not be your kids, but everyone may still be worried about them."

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