Ocean City Today

Play It Safe, bus vouchers questioned by city officials

Bad behavior, low student attendance to be weighed against program’s intent
By Katie Tabeling | Jul 20, 2017
File Photo Play It Safe offers several programs for high school graduates, like beach volleyball. This program will be discussed by city officials in the future.

(July 21, 2017) Declining participation in the resort’s annual June Play It Safe program for recent high school graduates and other high schoolers has Ocean City officials considering its future as well as the unlimited bus ride wristbands that are part of the package.

A report on Play It Safe attendance and wristband sales presented at last week’s Transportation Commission showed that 6,198 high school students took part in the three-week program. That’s a 46 percent decrease from 2006, when 11,550 young people signed up for Play It Safe’s various offerings.

Bus wristband sales was also down, as 3,179 teens redeemed $5 vouchers for unlimited rides. That will generate roughly $18,800 as compared to the $20,000 in revenue the City Council budgeted for this year.

Councilman Dennis Dare advocated eliminating the vouchers, as he said it promoted bad and sometimes criminal behavior on the buses.

“For years, I’ve been opposed to the wristbands because all it does is promote kids riding the bus for the wrong reasons,” Dare said in a later interview. “They’re misbehaving, like kicking out windows. It’s a problem for bus drivers, since we often have [first-time drivers] dealing with the disrespect and bodily fluids left behind.”

Throughout June, according to transportation department officials, buses have been packed with teenagers, who often using them as a rolling venue for social gatherings.

Transit Manager Mark Rickards said 20 instances of bus vandalism — including nine broken windows — occurred in June. Even so, that is a low percentage considering that the 678,273 fares were recorded for the month.

“It’s our best month, and it’s thanks to the seniors,” he said. “We take the good with the bad.”

Donna Greenwood, chairwoman of the Ocean City Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Committee, which sponsors Play It Safe, said that eliminating the vouchers would do little to end the bad behavior.

“It’s nothing we haven’t seen, because kids always jump from one party to another,” Greenwood said. “I don’t think it’s fair to blame the kids for bad behavior. There’s no way to prove it unless the bus drivers are counting the tickets and wristbands.

“Before this program started, we’d see inexperienced drivers texting and calling while on the road, or blasting the radio being distracted,” she continued. “We want them where it’s safe – on the buses.”

When Play It Safe started 28 years ago, the goal was to get teenagers to enjoy Ocean City safely. In the first year, booklets containing coupons, tips and statistics on drinking and drug abuse were issued to students in Maryland high schools. The vouchers for the wristbands were included five years ago.

“It’s worked for many years, but this year we didn’t have the funding for the booklets,” Greenwood said.

The City Council allocated $7,500 last fiscal year and for FY18 to the Ocean City Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Committee.

Greenwood also noted it was an unusual year for Play It Safe, as fewer people attended the first week, but numbers picked up the last two weeks.

“Graduation is getting pushed later and later. I’m hearing from businesses that they’re seeing less people stay long-term, and more weekend trips, so that could be it,” she said.

Still, Dare said it’s time to examine the program as a whole and make adjustments. If the attendees weren’t causing the issues on the buses, he said they could be drawing a criminal element.

“For the last few years, we’ve seen these kids with a lot of cash in their pockets. Then people take an interest in trying to sell them drugs, and they’re alone, they rob them at gun point or assault them,” he said. “The students are bait for the sharks to come … and this program doesn’t necessarily work. We have to evaluate it and maybe have a conversation come winter about funding.”


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