Dark side of Schoolies beach parties

Partying on the sand of Surfers Paradise has become synonymous for thousands of Gold Coast Schoolies every year - but just a few years ago, the infamous beach bashes weren't the safe space organisers say they are now.

Seven years ago, this news.com.au reporter was one of the 20,000 teens wandering down to Surfers beach for the first night of Schoolies.

Through the haze of alcohol and my 17-year-old naivety, there aren't many things that stick out from that first night anymore - except for the staggering level of sexual harassment.

As soon as we started making our way through the beach mosh to one of the stages in the Schoolies Hub, it was obvious a lot of the boys didn't want to spend their first Schoolies night alone.

Instead of getting shoved around like you would in a normal mosh, it was almost exclusively grabbing and groping.

As we pushed our way through, every second or third boy would do something annoying whether it was pulling us in to kiss them, groping our bums or even lifting our dresses and frantically trying to put their hands inside our underpants.

Half an hour later, we gave up - making our way out of the crowd and telling each other a DJ set wasn't worth angrily pushing away someone every 30 seconds.

Even as we left the crowd, we kept getting groped.

We spent the rest of the night still partying on the beach - staying away from the mosh pits and telling other girls to avoid them.

As the alcohol started to wear off, we started to make our way back to the hotel, whining about the rampant harassment on the way and brushing it off as "drunk silly boys".

Even as we walked down the promenade, dozens of drunken boys chanted, "Tits out for the boys, tits out for the boys".

Seven years on, post Me Too movement, I wanted to see if anything had changed because this year, and for the past couple of years, organisers insist the tide is turning.

Recent Schoolies are told by police, ambulance and support groups that they're some of the best behaved kids in decades and the statistics seem to back it up.

Officials say kids at this and last year's event have been some of the most polite and well-behaved teens they've seen. Assaults are down, binge drinking is down and sexual assault is dropping.

Chair of the Gold Coast Schoolies Advisory Group Mark Reaburn said over 13,000 school leavers received wristbands yesterday - on par with last year.

Mr Reaburn said behaviour of 2018 Schoolies on their first night had been good.

"Our partner agencies reported a quiet night for them with no major concerns."

Girls say they are often groped and grabbed while at Schoolies. Picture AAP/David Clark
Girls say they are often groped and grabbed while at Schoolies. Picture AAP/David Clark

Speaking to news.com.au, dozens of girls said their night had been drama - and harassment - free.

"I caught a boy in the mosh grabbing my ass so I turned around and just pushed him on the shoulder and told him to stop. I didn't even have to do anything after that because two of his friends came and grabbed him and started pushing him away saying sorry to me," 17-year-old Brisbane teen Sophie said.

While 15 of the 26 girls news.com.au spoke with said they'd been hit on by their peers, every single one of them said it had been done with respect.

"I got proposed to tonight," Gold Coast local Emma said, laughing.

"Obviously he was joking but yeah he came up to me and dropped on one knee and said, 'I've done 12 shots tonight and I'm probably going to die and I think we should get married before that'."

Georgia, 17, from the Sunshine Coast said everyone around her had been "well-behaved".

"Besides the boys making death circles in the mosh all night, they were good. I never really felt uncomfortable and they'd always make a path for us if we wanted to get out of the crowd."

Dozens of girls say they have had drama in the mosh pit at beach parties. Picture: John Gass
Dozens of girls say they have had drama in the mosh pit at beach parties. Picture: John Gass

Jessica, from Sydney's western suburbs, admitted she'd been grabbed in the mosh by one boy.

"My friend saw it and slapped him," Jessica said. "Pretty bad but he stopped laughing and looked guilty after we called him out."

Another high school graduate from Queensland, 18-year-old Maddy, said if it wasn't for three boys who walked up to her at the beach she probably would've been walking home alone.

"We saw her crying on the sand and we were just chilling out nearby so we just came over to see she was OK," Cairns local Jack said.

"She's lost her phone but we just added some of her friends on Snapchat and they're on their way now. We didn't want her to be by herself."

The Schoolies Hub, where the beach parties take place, is dubbed a "safe space" by event organisers.

It's drug, alcohol and 'toolie' free and is crawling with dozens of security and police officers. Support service volunteers are also on hand to help out any distressed kids.

The beach last night was still full of drunk kids who had lost everything from their phones to shoes but the atmosphere felt healthier than it did years ago.

This is an opinion backed up by Queensland Police who, despite arresting six Schoolies last night, said the cohort had been on their best behaviour.

Thousands flock to Surfers Paradise for Schoolies 2018. Picture: John Gass
Thousands flock to Surfers Paradise for Schoolies 2018. Picture: John Gass

"Wet weather overnight did not see the number of schoolies in the hub decrease and were more than the same time last year," QPS said in a statement.

"Police were generally pleased with the behaviour of schoolies, with only a small number of the large crowd coming to the attention of police."

Officers arrested six Schoolies - three males and three females - on nine charges, the majority of which were for drug possession. The number of first night arrests was the same as last year.

Despite the Schoolies Hub cleaning up its image, police still insist girls are most at risk when they're outside the designated schoolies areas - away from their friends and support networks.

In 2011, a Gladstone Schoolie was raped inside her hotel while she was on a late night walk.

"People tell you not to go anywhere alone, so I just went down to the (enclosed) hotel pool area," the unnamed teen told the Gladstone Observer at the time.

"It was dark and I didn't see them coming. They startled me, they pushed me into a corner. One held my mouth to stop me screaming, and the other penetrated me anally," she said.

Sexual assault and harassment that occurs away from policed areas has led Schoolies organisers to adopt what they call a "diversionary strategy" to get kids out of their rooms and away from their hotels.

"It is all about getting school leavers out of their rooms and engaged on the beach in the Schoolies Hub," Mr Reaburn said.

"The purpose of the Schoolies Hub is to keep the schoolies safe in their own exclusive alcohol free area that is well supervised by our volunteers, staff and security.

"We know we can't have eyes on all parts of Surfers Paradise especially in rooms so we use education as much as possible to encourage school leavers to be vigilant and to contact for help or support if they need it. If something does happen, we have the pathways in place to provide support and care for the person."

'Toolies', the people who attend Schoolies despite not being 2018 high school graduates, pose some of the greatest risks to teens legitimately celebrating leaving school.

Partygoers celebrate at Schoolies 2018. Picture: John Gass
Partygoers celebrate at Schoolies 2018. Picture: John Gass

In a statement released ahead of last year's Schoolies, Gold Coast lawyer Bruce Simmonds called for there to be a no-tolerance approach to the older party crashers.

"It's no secret that older 'toolies' are drawn to the Schoolies event, to prey on the kids, push drugs and for sexual kicks. People who do this should face minimum mandatory jail sentences," Mr Simmonds said.

Sex, partying and binge drinking has become synonymous with the Schoolies experience but for the first time in years, authorities and support groups say the tide is finally turning - and graduating teens are leaving high school with class.

Schoolies volunteer support group Red Frogs Australia national co-ordinator Andy Gourley supported that, telling Newscorp things have changed.

"There's a radical difference to back in the day where there were heaps of punch-ons and nothing to do but drink," he said.

"The last three (Schoolies) have probably been the healthiest we've done in 20 years. There's been a real shift in culture where there are a lot more people not drinking as much, and a lot more people not drinking at all."