- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

OCEAN CITY — By dusk, there’s a line around the block for an under-21 dance club favored by the thousands of recent high school graduates who traditionally descend on Ocean City each June.

But there’s another line a few blocks up Coastal Avenue, where hundreds of the teens are waiting for a pancake-eating contest to begin. It’s a free activity put on by Play It Safe Ocean City, a group that tries to keep these young adults so busy during their senior trip that they resist the party scene.

The pitch is simple: Why drink and then go out dancing when you can windsurf for free, play late-night miniature golf or learn to build a champion sandcastle?

“You can find better things to do” than drink, said Tim Rousseau, 18, who missed the finals in the pancake-eating contest but polished off his plate of flapjacks anyway.

Mr. Rousseau conceded that he has had a few beers since coming to Ocean City, saying most other graduates have, too. “A lot of them want to drink,” said Mr. Rousseau, who’s from Bowie.

The whole town exudes a rowdy atmosphere this time of year, from the tattoo parlors where teenagers get body piercings to the boardwalk, where the girls stroll in their grown-up best (high heels, tube tops, short shorts) and the boys shout compliments from hotel rooms above in hopes of luring a female to come up.

Not everyone is a fan of the atmosphere, though, particularly locals who commonly call the 80,000 or so teens who come to Ocean City this time of year “Junebugs.” The moniker implies an infestation.

Tension with locals, and a worry over alcohol and pedestrian deaths, led to the creation in 1989 of Play It Safe, a state-funded program that sends pamphlets advocating responsibility to every public high school in the state.

At first the program shipped an eight-page booklet to the seniors. Then events were added, and last year more than 12,000 students participated in at least one alcohol-free activity.

Participants get wristbands allowing them free bus rides, so that even if they drink they will at least be able to avoid driving.

“You’d be surprised how many kids are just looking for something to do,” said Al Handy, a supervisor for Ocean City Recreation and Parks who helps with the program.

This year, the program is on track to draw even more teens, said Donna Greenwood, who runs Play It Safe.

It’s a collaboration with local volunteers and the Worcester County Health Department, plus local businesses that put coupons in the booklet and donate prizes to attract participants. The program, which runs through June 23, costs about $40,000.

Miss Greenwood concedes that many recent graduates will scoff at any alcohol-free event, but she said the program is making inroads by giving the teens a fun alternative to getting drunk.

And even for the thousands who won’t attend an event, at least they have received a pamphlet spelling out what the alcohol laws are and how they are enforced.

“Don’t come to Ocean City with your SUV loaded with Corona, Heineken and Jack Daniel. Because if they find it, they’ll pour it all out,” Miss Greenwood said. “If you want to see a grown man cry, watch them pour his alcohol out on the street.”

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