It looks like a hip-hop video shoot has invaded the fast-food restaurant.
Dozens of high-schoolers fill up a McDonald’s eatery, mobbed together in a tight pack, all bouncing in rhythm to a song. Raised arms stab the air. Kids in swim trunks and backpacks mug for cellphone cameras. Dancers jump on top of tables, spinning for the crowd of teenagers and shocked onlookers.
The YouTube video, filmed in Ocean City in June 2016, documents kids gamboling down sidewalks, public buses, condo stairwells and beaches, part of the larger horde of teens who stampede through towns up and down the Atlantic shore every June.
They are Beach Week revelers.
High school students nationwide christen summer vacation with road trips and beer kegs. But in the Mid-Atlantic region — particularly the District, Maryland and Virginia — Beach Week points to a specific annual institution for students, nervous parents and law enforcement officials tasked with cleaning up the mess.
Like an annual migration of rowdy birds, thousands of recent graduates and rising seniors invade shore towns such as Dewey Beach, Del., and Ocean City every June. They come for marathon bouts of underage drinking, substance intake, public disturbance and other unsupervised activities that keep parents up at night.
“Everyone rents a house and buys booze, and inevitably the cops show up and arrest some unlucky few,” a Maryland high school alumnus who attended Beach Week in the early 2000s told The Washington Post. “It’s legit debauchery.”
“The binge drinking is horrible. Marijuana is in every house we go to. The pills? An absolute nightmare,” a Dewey Beach police officer told concerned parents in March 2012, The Post reported. “Everything you can think of happens when that sun comes down, and that’s when we have most of our problems.”
The Mid-Atlantic tradition is back in the spotlight this week as a result of the controversy swirling around Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. Three women have accused the judge of sexual assault, putting his seat on the high court in jeopardy. One of the women — Christine Blasey Ford — says she was assaulted by Kavanaugh at a drunken high school party in the 1980s. Denying all of the charges, Kavanaugh has released copies of his calendar from the summer of 1982, evidence, he says, that he attended no such party.
Between hand-scribbled entries for “Lift at Prep” and “Dad’s birthday,” the calendar days between June 6 and 12 are marked in big block letters: “BEACH WEEK.” Kavanaugh’s yearbook page also contained a cryptic reference to the event: “Beach Week Ralph Club — Biggest Contributor.”
The references alone do not prove Ford’s allegations. But all three of the accusers describe situations in which Kavanaugh was drinking excessively. The judge has said he did not binge drink, but acquaintances have countered that claim. A third accuser — Julie Swetnick — said in a signed affidavit released Wednesday that she had witnessed Kavanaugh’s excessive drinking in Ocean City during the event. The no-rules atmosphere of Beach Week points to an environment in which bad behavior — including sexual assault — is possible.
“His own statements and his own record provides corroboration for the atmosphere in which something like [the assault] could happen,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told NPR on Wednesday.
The origins of Beach Week have been lost to the boozy past. In 1999, a team of pediatricians affiliated with the American Medical Association published a study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine based on an evaluation of a group of high school girls from Fairfax County, Va., who attended Beach Week in 1996. “An annual ‘must do’ rite of passage for approximately half of all suburban middle-class graduates,” the article noted, “Beach Week resembles college students’ well-publicized, spring break pilgrimages to Florida.”
The report continued: “Beach week is symbolic of the completion of high school and the beginning of college or employment, the attenuation or loss of parental control, the imminent separation from childhood friends, and departure for college. The objective is carefree revelry — carousing, sun, sand, and frequently, alcohol, other drugs, and sex.”
Beach Week, otherwise known as Senior Week, has entered the political fray before. In 2013, then Maryland gubernatorial candidate Douglas F. Gansler was photographed in the center of a group of kids in what looked to be a wild party in a Delaware beach town. Gansler and several other parents had organized the beach trip for boys who had just graduated from the Landon School, a private school for boys in Bethesda.
As The Baltimore Sun reported that year, “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.”
“I understand the narrative … that rich kids get away with stuff,” Gansler said this week. “I just don’t think that’s necessarily the case.”
Anecdotes from the ground level fill in the picture. A former North Bethesda student who was in high school at the same time as Kavanaugh recently described Beach Week to HuffPost: “That’s where everybody would go down to the coast, over to Ocean City, or Rehoboth [Beach, Del.], one of the local beaches. And somebody would have a house, or somebody would rent a house, and then it would just turn into a free-for-all there.”
At Slate, Alexandra Lescaze recalled her own time in the Beltway private-school scene in the 1990s, including an incident on the shore. “I distinctly remember being at a Beach Week party with my then-boyfriend when it dawned on us that there was a drunk girl in a room down the hall, and boys were “lining up” to go in there and, presumably, have their way with her,” she wrote.
Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge — who Ford says was there during her alleged assault — has even documented his own experience on the shore for the annual seaside party.
“In high school, some buddies and I always went down to the Eastern Shore every spring for ‘Beach Week,’ the annual exodus of school kids to Ocean City, Maryland,” Judge wrote in a 2015 post on the website Acculturated. “At one party, we all had had a few beers and after the girls had gone home for the night, someone produced a camera and a couple guys started posing nude. It was a raucous evening and the intention was pure self-deprecation: guys were flexing like bodybuilders when they obviously weren’t, doing Mr. Universe poses and quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.”
Statistics have borne out the anecdotal antics.
Researchers from the 1999 study found that “respondents enjoyed Beach Week but a large percentage engaged in serious risk-taking behaviors.” Of the 59 high school girls evaluated, “daily cigarette smoking (54%), daily drunkenness (75%), and sex (46%) were the norm among respondents of our survey,” the researchers wrote. “Sixteen girls (64%) reported that they drank 8 or more beers/wine during a typical Beach Week party.”
“Unfortunately, most of us will not be surprised by the finding in this study,” one of the researchers added in an editor’s note. “What needs to be added to the sun, suds, and sex is SANITY.”
Baltimore Sun staff contributed to this article.