Angst among the parents of Montgomery County high school seniors was building to a crescendo in March, but it wasn’t college acceptance or rejection notices that had adults on edge: It was the prospect of Beach Week.
On school listservs, at PTSA meetings and in discussions with kids, many parents have let it be known that they view Beach Week as little more than a modern day bacchanalia. As one nervous parent wrote on the Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School listserv:
“Most of all, I’m worried that my daughter will meet with a car accident because either she, or the person driving the car, or the kids in the car coming in the opposite direction, are drunk; or that she’ll be molested, or maybe fall off a balcony escaping from a police raid, or that someone will put the date rape drug in her drink and she’ll pass out and end up like [Natalee] Holloway; perhaps she’ll be asleep in a house that catches fire because someone didn’t turn off the barbecue and she doesn’t wake up in time to get out. I also worry about the mix of alcohol and the ocean leading [to] drowning.”
Beach Week is not new. The tradition of Bethesda-area kids going to Rehoboth Beach, Del., Ocean City, Md., and other beach towns to celebrate high school graduation has been around for at least a generation. What has changed is the duration (it used to be for a weekend), the popularity (early on, mostly private school kids went) and the parental anxiety. “There certainly weren’t meetings where parents got together to discuss it,” says Gary Zinkgraf of Bethesda, who who graduated from B-CC in 1978, and whose daughter, Anna, is going to Beach Week this year. “Our parents generally had less angst about a lot of things than parents do today.”
The good news is that most of the kids survive the experience more or less unscathed. Most don’t get wasted, or at least they don’t get caught. But some do.
Arrests in Rehoboth Beach for underage possession and consumption of alcohol more than tripled from June 2006 to June 2007, from 22 arrests to 72 arrests. Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith W. Banks, the town’s top cop for seven years, says alcohol isn’t the only potential hazard for kids.
“During this time frame, there are more drug and alcohol arrests. When one in a house has marijuana, a lot get arrested,” Banks says. “The charges may be dismissed later on, but there is a lot of back and forth for court appearances. Usually, they get probation before judgment and a fine. But there are consequences that could affect them the rest of their lives. We’ve had people jumping out of windows and injuring themselves when the police respond. They’ll try different kinds of drugs, due to peer pressure. There are sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Kids have lost scholarships. Parents have called and said ‘You’ve ruined my kid’s life.’”
Teenagers who spend Beach Week in Rehoboth Beach are known by locals as “June bugs,” swarms of kids who descend on the towns like pesky insects. But, Banks says, “For the most part, most kids are well behaved. There are only a few bad apples. I guess I’m getting older. It seems they want to grow up so fast.”
Some Bethesda-area parents say they trust that their kids will behave appropriately at Beach Week. Lou Kallas let his son, who attended Walt Whitman High School, go to Beach Week last year. His daughter attended two years ago. Kallas’ daughter, Melissa, 20, is a University of Maryland sophomore. Son Christopher, 19, is a freshman at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“The approach my wife and I took was to make it a learning experience,” Kallas says. “Our children arranged for the house and the lease, did a budget, shopping, and made all the logistical things work.
“We knew all the parents, so that was fine,” Kallas says. “My whole belief was that this is a rite of passage for the kids, and since they did well in school, got into good colleges, and they’re good kids, I would be wrong to say no. If I can’t trust them to go to Beach Week, how can I trust them to go to college?”
Kallas said he was glad to co-sign the lease as required. “The only rule we had,” he says, “was that if the house got swarmed by a couple hundred kids with a drop-in party, they had to call the police on themselves.” But, he says, nothing even remotely like that happened. “I can’t get over parents who have a kid going to [college] in the Midwest, the drinking capital of the world, and they won’t let them go to Beach Week.”
During a lively exchange on the Walter Johnson (WJ) High School listserv in February, senior Danny Fersh, coeditor of the school newspaper, The Pitch, seemed to echo Kallas’ view, albeit from a teen’s perspective. “Your kids are seniors about to make a huge transition into the rest of their lives,” Fersh wrote. “If you trust their judgment, why not let them go for one week for the sake of allowing them to enjoy one week of their lives.”
That might sound like whining, considering the privileged atmosphere in which most WJ students are raised, but consider, Fersh says: “They (the seniors) just survived four years in an environment whose academic pressure is unrivaled nearly anywhere else in the country, so shouldn’t they be rewarded for that?”
A parent with a WJ-bound eighth-grader recalled being allowed to go to Beach Week in Ocean City from sophomore year on, some 30 years ago. “There was throwing up from drinking every day,” she wrote on the listserv in response to Fersh’s comments. “Drunk driving every day. Drinking and passing out in strange houses. Quite a few arrests, also. Girls and boys that previously had not had sex had decided (under the influence) that this was the proper environment to take the plunge. In junior year, someone put a hallucinogenic drug in a beer that one of my friends had put down somewhere. She ended up in the hospital and had recurring issues for several years.
“After spending 16-18 years pouring your blood, sweat, tears, money and love into a project (raising kids), it’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow that you have to top it off with a week-long adventure that could wipe all that out.”
Parental anxiety over Beach Week was evident at meetings this year at Walt Whitman in January, WJ in February and B-CC in March. Dewey Beach police attended the Whitman meeting, in what has become an annual tradition at the school. Beach Week dominated a two-hour PTSA meeting at B-CC, where a panel of parents who’d been through the experience, alumni and a public defender fielded questions. Their answers did not lower the angst level, according to one parent who attended the session.
Suzie Walsh, a 1975 B-CC graduate and the mother of three daughters, allowed her two oldest to go to Beach Week. Walsh’s youngest, a 17-year-old B-CC senior, decided not to go this year after hearing her sisters’ horror stories. One of her sisters was taken to juvenile detention because she was in a house where underage kids were drinking. Walsh says she let her middle daughter, Renee Walsh, now 22, use the family condo in Rehoboth Beach, thinking the kids would stay put. They didn’t, she says. “They were just driving back and forth along the coastal highway all night.”
When she went to clean out the apartment at the end of the week, Suzie Walsh says, “I found kids sleeping in balcony chairs, everywhere. It was just disgusting. Our kids are spoiled. They expect everything. … Never again. It’s not worth it, because everybody knows they’re going to drink.”
Daughter Renee, a 2003 B-CC graduate, has a different take. “I mean, it was fun,” she says. “It’s a time you go and hang out with your friends, there’s parties and social gatherings. The only one thing I’ll agree with: A week is a long time for kids. At some point, you get bored. There was a party that got busted by police. To be quite honest, parents should expect that. No kid goes to Beach Week and wants to get in trouble. But people get careless, and that’s when things happen.”