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On the Coast: 'Junebugs' Descend on Beach Towns

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Hundreds of high school seniors head to Ocean City every year for Senior Beach Week.
Hundreds of high school seniors head to Ocean City every year for Senior Beach Week.

Imagine you're experiencing adulthood for the first time in your life. At the beach. A beach where there's plenty of alcohol and lots of other people your own age. How would you comport yourself in that situation?

It's a question that thousands of newly-minted high school graduates ask themselves every year as they descend on Ocean City and other beach towns for "Senior Week."

Locals call these graduating seniors "June bugs," and their arrival is often met with a bit of trepidation. But for the June bugs themselves, Senior Week is a chance to say goodbye to childhood and hello to adulthood.

"This is it — everything you've ever wanted to say or do, you know you have like six or seven days left to do it. So people have an incredible time, they take a lot of stupid risks, and they have a lot of fun. It's just a crazy time," says Ryan Gielen, a Columbia, Md. native who made a coming-of-age film called The Graduates about the senior week experience.

But that crazy time often means lots of work for Ocean City police officers. In the off season, they might get a couple thousand calls per month from the public, whereas in June, that number can be way above 10,000.

This year, there's another new twist for police officers, as a change in Maryland law means that officers are now allowed to write citations, rather than simply arrest people, for certain offenses like possession of marijuana or disorderly conduct.

Mike Levy, a spokesman for the Ocean City Police Department, says this new law was designed to cut down on paperwork for police. But he's concerned about how effective it will be when it comes to June bugs, especially those who consume alcohol.

"The concern where we have large groups of kids who break the law by consuming alcoholic beverages under age," says Levy. "We issue them citations because under the guidelines, they would be eligible for a citation. How seriously are they going to take the citation at that moment? As we know, when people drink and consume alcoholic beverages and get intoxicated, their decision-making abilities are diminished considerably."

Business owners in Ocean City have mixed feelings about June bugs. Lee Gerachis owns Malibu's Surf Shop on the boardwalk, and he thinks the rowdy teen scene is bad for a resort like Ocean City, which markets itself as a family-friendly destination.

"You have people that have never been here before who happen to come here in June, because their little kids get out of school. And when they book their hotel room, no one tells them what it is, and so their whole floor is 18-year-olds drinking beer. And they walk in here, and it's a little calmer, and they say, 'Wow, we did not expect this.' And I say 'It's really a shame,' and they say, 'We'll never come back to this town.' And to me that's bad, that's heartbreaking.'"

But business owners who operate food stands on the boardwalk say as much as 80 percent of their business in June comes from high school grads. And those businesses may be in luck, because Senior Week seems to be an idea that's spreading well beyond the Maryland and Delaware schools that traditionally take part in it.

"It's insane and confusing and crazy and wonderful," says Gielen. "It's just this really unique experience... there's nothing like it."

[Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "Chasing the Sun (Hardwell Remix)" by The Wanted from The Wanted]


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