Every year, thousands of Maryland teenagers converge on Ocean City for a week in June, enjoying the sun, their friends and a first taste of freedom following graduation. But Senior Week — a tradition among graduating students across the region — also can be a dangerous time.
Howard County students — and their parents — preparing for the annual rite of passage gathered at Mt. Hebron High School in Ellicott City Monday, April 8 for an information session sponsored by the school’s PTSA and the nonprofit HC DrugFree on how to stay safe in Ocean City during the festivities.
“One time I get the most nervous is this time of year, from the first days of good weather until we get through Senior Week,” Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon told the students and parents gathered at Mt. Hebron. “That’s when we’ve found, historically but fortunately not recently, the most people your age are killed because of motor vehicles, because of alcohol. This is the time of your life when you should be on top of the world, when you should be enjoying everything you’re doing. When your parents bring you to events like this, it’s because they want to be safe.”
Over the course of almost two hours, the crowd of nearly 200 in the Mt. Hebron’s auditorium listened as Officer Howard Caplan of the Ocean City Police Department and Sgt. James McVey of the Ocean City Beach Patrol explained to the graduating seniors and their parents how to stay safe during Senior Week. Lessons ran the gamut from bringing extra sunblock and surviving rip currents, to the danger of drinking and drugs.
“Get to know your lifeguard,” McVey urged students. “Get to know the people on patrol. They could be your best friend, or the person calling the cops on you.”
In Ocean City, Caplan said, police are hyper-vigilant when it comes to relatively minor infractions, like parking violations and jaywalking (ignoring crosswalks and sleeping in a car both warrant $25 tickets, he said).
“We hit everything small so we don’t have the large problems,” he said.
The most important message he wanted to impart to the students, Caplan said, was to not drink.
“I’m begging you not to,” he said. “And I’m not giving you permission by any means, but if you find that you just cannot survive without alcohol, don’t drive.”
Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree, said the purpose of the information session was to educate students and empower parents in preparation of Senior Week, this year from June 8-15.
“It’s their time to get away, and for a lot of them, it’s the first time going off on their own,” she said. “It’s different when you go to college — there’s structure, and they’re there to learn. We all know as adults that fun can get carried away, and it’s easy to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if you’re someone who makes really good decisions.”
Marriotts Ridge High School seniors Carey McDonald, Gabi Ellrich, Sam Terrill and Megan Tuma are all going to Ocean City, and are excited to spend time together before college and, as Terrill put it: “soak up the sun.”
But they understand their parents’ concerns — it’s understandable, Tuma said.
“We’ve kind of accepted it,” McDonald said.
While they hear “all the time” to be careful during Senior Week, Tuma said, the presentations from McVey and Caplan resonated a little more strongly.
“They have stories, and they’re on top of what they’re doing,” Ellrich said.
The girls’ parents were also in the audience Monday night. They too went to Senior Week when they were younger, said Jackie Tuma, and she was thankful to hear someone other than parents hammer the message home. Sometimes with parents, she said, it’s “in one ear and out the other.”
Marriotts Ridge parent Gina Ellrich was also thankful for the presentation because “you hear stories about innocent kids getting hurt,” and it was important for her daughter to be safe and aware of her surroundings in Ocean City.
“This is a last hurrah,” she said. “And it’s upsetting to think how quickly that can turn into a disaster.”