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Ocean City braces as thousands of young people descend on beach town

As Ocean City braces for Senior Week, the annual migration of graduating high school students to the beaches, thousands more young partyers are expected to join them.

A loosely organized College Takeover Beach Week also starts this weekend, an event that surprised Virginia Beach last year when an influx of up to 40,000 visitors was accompanied by a rise in cases of violence and disorderly behavior.

Ocean City officials say they won't be caught off-guard and have prepared for both Senior Week and the "takeover" with increased patrols and new boardwalk surveillance cameras that will be monitored in real time. Last month, the city prohibited the sale of quick-opening knives and laser pointers that have become popular trinkets and have resulted in hundreds of nuisance calls.

"We've had some instances in town, and we've taken a proactive approach to eliminate some of these things occurring," Ocean City Councilman Brent Ashley said. "We're prepared for what will come."

Senior Week, a more than four-decade tradition of high school seniors flocking to the Eastern Shore upon graduation, begins this weekend with the first of three weeklong teenage treks that bring more than 100,000 young people to town.

College Takeover Beach Week, a two-year-old event, could draw tens of thousands more. It ends Sunday.

Last year, the event coincided with three shootings, three stabbings and numerous fights in Virginia Beach. Sponsors and promoters have denied responsibility for the violence.

The event does not appear to have an official website but virtual fliers for the gathering have popped up on Twitter and Facebook feeds with the hashtag #collegebeachweek. A similar event is slated for Virginia Beach later this month.

Because the event is promoted virally, Ocean City Mayor Richard "Rick" Meehan said he is not sure how many people will attend. That lack of organization and information has led residents and businesses to speculate that the event could pose trouble — but Meehan said he isn't making any assumptions.

"It's gotten a lot of media coverage and unfortunately it's concerned some people," he said. "One person tells another person, and the stories grow."

An organizer — who goes by the name Tae Sweizy on social media — said college beach week leaders have been talking to town officials and are aware of bans on beach smoking, profanity on the boardwalk and other Ocean City rules.

"We're gonna keep it safe," Sweizy said.

Meehan said he welcomes all visitors. But, he said, police have prepared for all situations, including large crowds in public spaces that surprised police last year.

As of Memorial Day weekend, Ocean City police doubled its year-round force of 100 officers with 100 more seasonal sworn officers, many of whom are college criminal justice students. They will be patrolling beaches, boardwalks and business strips throughout the town, enforcing a "zero tolerance" policy toward underage drinking.

"June is, and has always been, our busiest month for the department, as it historically draws a very young and diverse crowd, and we are expecting no different this weekend," said Lindsay O'Neal, a spokeswoman for the Ocean City police.

"We're optimistic that the majority of people that are planning to come to Ocean City throughout the month of June are here to enjoy the beach and everything our town has to offer. Those that come with other intentions will be met with no tolerance and strict enforcement."

The town also added 10 surveillance cameras to the boardwalk. The town previously employed eight cameras, but none were monitored. They were used to deter crime and gather evidence after crimes were committed. Now public safety employees will monitor the new cameras live, Ashley said.

After fielding nearly 1,000 calls for service over the past three years on reports of laser pointers being used to blind residents, police officers and passing aircraft, the City Council took the step of banning the devices except for educational purposes. Elected officials took an additional step of prohibiting sales of "assisted opening" or switchblade-style knives after police saw them being sold on the boardwalk.

"Our boardwalk, that is full of visiting families, is simply not the place for those type of weapons," O'Neal said.

Most of Ocean City's crime problems come in June, which saw the most arrests and citations of any month last year — 3,048. Police issued 420 "minor in possession" citations in June compared to 42 in May, which had the next-highest number of citations.

June also is the department's busiest for service calls. Last year, the department fielded 15,290 total calls for service in June, over 1,000 more calls than in July, the next-highest month.

Both Meehan and Ashley said the town cannot stop all teens from drinking. They said they can encourage them to attend Play It Safe Ocean City 2014 events, which include alcohol- and drug-free dance parties, miniature golf and dodge ball games and other contests.

This year is the 25th year for Play It Safe, which is sponsored by the Ocean City Drug & Alcohol Abuse Prevention Committee. Meehan said he hopes parents encourage their children to attend the events.

"We need some help from the parents," Meehan said. "Before they send their graduates and kids out here, we need them to make sure they're ready to come.

"Our goal is to keep them safe while they're here," he added, "but we need them to remind their graduates ... to obey the rules while they're there."

Town officials hope these steps ensure a safe summer season for young people, because Ocean City doesn't want to turn them away. The town collected more than $8.9 million in tourism-related taxes last June, and Ashley hopes the teens come and create memories that will lead them back to the resort town in the decades to come.

"It's very important that we recognize that the young people are our future customers," said Ashley, who owned a motel and rental business for 30 years and served as past president of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michelle Deal Zimmerman contributed to this article.

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