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Ocean of freedom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ocean City -- That first-ever sip of coffee can be a bitter jolt. That first swig of beer might not have been all you hoped for, either. But remember your first taste of freedom?

Now that's good stuff, right from the start - edifying, empowering and, assuming you're using it right, no nasty aftertaste. It goes down easy. It leaves you wanting more. Just ask Rachel Kline.

"I love it. I just love it," said Kline, 18, on her first unchaperoned trip away from her home in Baker, W.Va. "Nobody telling you what to do, being able to do whatever you want - I just love freedom."

Kline is one of an estimated 100,000 graduating seniors - known locally, colloquially and maybe a tad pejoratively, as "Junebugs" - converging on Ocean City during the next three weeks to celebrate the end of high school and the beginning of adulthood.

With that many teenagers trying out their wings for the first time, some feathers will inevitably fly, and some crash landings are imminent. In the next three weeks in Ocean City there will be plenty of youthful indiscretions and possibly some life-altering mistakes. Police will have their hands full, hotel owners will become part-baby sitters and oldtimers will shake their heads and wonder what this generation is coming to.

But nothing will alter a cycle that has become as predictable as the tides - that annual rite of passage known as senior week.

"This is the calm before the storm," Casey Peters, owner of the Surfside 8 Motel, said Thursday. He, like other Ocean City merchants, knew exactly when the hordes of graduates would start pouring in (two days ago), when their numbers will peak (June 10-17), and when they will leave (the last week in June).

At East Hardy High School in West Virginia, seniors finished May 26, and 14 of the 52 members of the Class of 2006 headed for Ocean City the next day - most of them after long and serious talks with their parents about responsibility. Six, including Kline, were sharing a single room at the Surfside 8.

By the end of the week, Kline had visited her first nightclub (H20, an under 21-club), danced at her first foam party ("People dance much more raunchy here"), made her first bungee jump (at Trimpers Amusement Park) and was sporting a brand new tattoo across her lower back. (Don't worry, Mom, it's only henna.)

She'd passed on an opportunity to get her navel pierced, refrained from the binge drinking going on around her and, all in all, thinks she handled her newfound responsibility well, considering "where we're from is really, really small and rural, and we've never experienced anything like this."

"My mom was really worried when we left, but now she has mellowed out a bit," said Kline, who called home every day. "I think our parents would be proud of us. We've cooked for ourselves, and we've done our own laundry."

And it only took one warning before they fell into line with Peters' house rule for high school grads requiring they notify the motel office whenever an unregistered guest visits their room.

"That keeps it from becoming a party room. The party room can turn into a nightmare for you," said Peters, who has been in the motel business here for 15 years and is known to do a little partying himself. "I don't run a gestapo ship by any means, but I pay attention to what's going on on my property."

Unlike some Ocean City hotel and motel owners, Peters has always gladly accepted high school graduates as guests, and he charges them a relatively reasonable deposit - $25 a head. Others charge as much as $400 or $500 - the maximum state law allows.

Peters hires an off-duty Ocean City police officer to work security during senior weeks, and while he keeps an eye on his wards, he doesn't see it as his job to ensure that they don't drink - only that it doesn't get out of hand. Hence the rule on room guests.

Among the clutter in his motel office - amid the reservation slips, tourist pamphlets, Band-Aid boxes, cans of wasp killer and bottles of hydrogen peroxide - was a note left for him by Kline, written on the back of a paper plate that resembled a graduation cap, left over from an earlier party:

"We have 2 guests in room 24," it said, "and the Chinese delivery guy is bringing food."

For the boys next door, freedom's waters were a little choppier.

Sixteen of them, all of whom will graduate this week from a high school in Maryland - they pleaded that neither it nor they be named - were packed into the second floor of a beach house. Most had been making use of the supply of beer and alcohol they had brought with them on the trip, purchased, they said, by older friends back home.

One drank so much, and got so sick, that the previous night's designated driver (or "DD," as they called him) took him to the hospital, where a state police officer promptly cited him for underage drinking. Another had been cited for public urination.

Ocean City police issued 3,376 citations for underage drinking last year, about three-fourths of them in June, said Barry Neeb, community relations coordinator for the department.

Skirting the law

Graduates commonly bring alcohol from home, find an adult to buy it for them at the beach, or use fake IDs, easily obtainable in kit or finished form through the Internet.

"We carry the only True U.S. Fake IDs on the market," one company that charges up to $200 per phony driver's license boasts on its Web site. "You will not find another Fake ID shop online that you can trust like the ID Shop."

The Ocean City Police Department doubles in size for the summer, climbing from 100 officers to about 210. The extras most often are college students enrolled in criminal justice programs around the country.

And in an effort to keep graduates from getting into trouble in the first place, the town for 17 years has sponsored the Play It Safe Program, which provides high school graduates with "healthy alternatives."

The activities, which started yesterday with karaoke and dance contests on the beach, include bowling, miniature golf, volleyball tournaments, pancake-eating contests, rock climbing, tennis and laser tag - all free.

Participants get reflective wristbands that entitle them to free use of buses - a step aimed at cutting down on both drunk driving and pedestrian accidents.

The Play It Safe Program distributes pamphlets to all Maryland high schools, providing information on alcohol laws, alcohol's dangers, jail, falls from balconies, car crashes, sexually transmitted disease and date rape - all interspersed with coupons for discounts at area shops.

Last year 12,500 grads, from 29 states, took part in Play it Safe activities, said Donna Greenwood, one of the program's founders.

Seen it all

George Pierce is pretty sure he has seen it all in his job as "comfort station attendant" on Ocean City's boardwalk.

He's responsible for keeping the public restroom at 9th Street clean, locking it up at night and ensuring no high jinks take place inside - a task that becomes most trying during senior weeks.

"The Junebugs will be here soon," Pierce, 60, said, using a term some civic leaders have suggested merchants stop using - as it makes the annual visit sound like an infestation. As Pierce sees it, that's pretty much what it is.

"They drink beer in there, write on the walls and just make a mess of things. They'll stop up the sinks and leave the water running, stick beer cans and rolls of toilet paper in the toilet, steal the signs and even pull commodes out of the wall."

As of last week, the only trouble so far had been kids tossing ice cubes at him from a balcony above. The worst, he says, is yet to come.

Larry Taylor strolled the boardwalk nearby, a pair of handcuffs dangling from his belt, a can of spray Mace in a pouch on his hip and a badge dangling from a chain around his neck that read "Security Enforcement Officer."

As chief of security for Paradise Plaza, a boardwalk hotel, he says most of the 20 to 30 groups he evicts from the hotel each year are high school grads during senior week.

"They get the rules and regulations at the front door, and if they don't obey them they're out the front door. I don't mind somebody letting off steam, but five people screaming their lungs out is another story. I tell them to shut up, and if they don't, they get their first and final warning."

Taylor, a retired cop from Philadelphia, stood in front of a T-shirt shop that offered senior week T-shirts, the slogans on which included "Party Til You Puke" and "What Happens on Senior Week Stays in Senior Week."

High school grads account for the majority of customers in Ocean City's motels and restaurants in June, but the town hasn't always been as obliging to them as it now is.

In 2000, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint against about 20 Ocean City motels, claiming their practice of banning or requiring exorbitant deposits from 18-year-olds was discriminatory.

In 2002, despite an effort to make it legal for hotel owners to refuse service to 18-year-olds, a state law was passed to stop that practice. They are, however, allowed to charge as much as $500 for security deposits.

"At one point, there were people who didn't want the graduates," said Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. "They felt they were having to spend more money than they made hiring security or fixing up rooms that were destroyed. There was a segment that wanted nothing to do with them."

The list of hotels and motels catering to senior week participants used to run less than a page, she said. Now, the list is almost three pages long. "I think we came to a realization that we need to welcome everyone," Jones said - of both the impact young people have on the local economy and the cyclical nature of it all.

"In another 10 years, these people will be coming back," she said, "probably with their children."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

To see a photo gallery of Ocean City, visit baltimoresun.com/shorestories.

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