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Risky Business : More teens are gambling, but few people seem to care. Odds are, a researcher warns, betting will lead many kids into trouble--like theft, truancy and a love of easy money.

September 14, 1993|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're pondering a list of teen-age vices, gambling might not come immediately to mind. But listen to what Julie, a 17-year-old Fountain Valley High student, says about her friends who roll the dice until well after midnight at weekend parties.

"A lot of guys get together and play craps on the pool tables. They bet $40 and $50, but it's their parents' money, so they don't care if they lose it."

The betting extends to the school parking lot, Julie said, where a handful of students often skip class to try their luck.

"There's this guy and he has this van . . . it's like a house. And they go out there during fourth period and play craps."

Teen-age gambling is on the rise across the country. Durand Jacobs, a Redlands psychologist who conducted a series of studies involving 3,700 students from 17 high schools in California, Minnesota, Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut, estimates that as many as 7 million juveniles gamble for money and that more than a million experience related problems, such as stealing and truancy.

Jacobs' study, the first on teen gambling, has prompted similar surveys in Texas, New Jersey, Florida and other states.

"It's the same everywhere," Jacobs said. "Other studies have replicated my findings. . . . There's no regional bias."

But it isn't just the numbers that concern Jacobs and other juvenile therapists. It's the attitude of kids, parents and even some educators toward teen gambling.

"Public understanding of gambling problems is where our understanding of alcoholism was some 40 or 50 years ago," said Jacobs, vice president of the New York City-based National Council on Problem Gambling.

Many kids and their parents consider gambling a "harmless diversion," with consequences much less serious than those from involvement with drugs, alcohol, violence or promiscuity. But Jacobs says gambling can expose youngsters to crime, truancy and a desire for easy money.

"One of the points that has to be made is that most of the people went on to be compulsive gamblers because when they started as teen-agers, they were winners," Jacobs said. The overwhelming majority of young people, he added, were introduced to gambling by their parents or relatives who condoned it as fun and games.

Jacobs said the urge can strike early, with more than 33% of the students surveyed in 1989 saying they had bet for money by their 11th birthday. More than 80% of them had wagered on a variety of games with family and friends by the time they were 15.

Although Jacobs' survey found indications of widespread teen gambling, school officials rarely say their students are involved.

"The attitude of the schools across the country is that it's happening, but not on my campus," Jacobs said.

Officials at several schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties said they were unaware of any gambling activity on their grounds.

"I don't want to say that it couldn't be happening," said San Marino High School Vice Principal David Crist. "It's not been an issue in my time here that I've had to deal with."

West L.A. Baptist High School Principal John Reynolds said he knows of no wagering activity on his 100-student campus.

"If we've had that problem, it's not cropped up to the point where any faculty members are aware of it," he said.

The implications of teen-age wagering vary from person to person.

As she watched her boys play dice while waiting to order at a local family restaurant, an Irvine mother of two Rancho San Joaquin Intermediate School students called gambling a phase, a rite of passage for American youth.

"It's just for fun," she said. "We really don't mind."

The boys said kids at the junior high school gamble in the bathrooms "or places that aren't obvious" with lunch money or pocket change, flipping coins in the air and betting on heads or tails.

"We just do it for fun," said one. "The most I ever bet was a dollar."

Conne Kirkpatrick, a high school teacher from San Clemente, doesn't consider an occasional poker game cause for alarm. She said her 18-year-old son, Ryan, wagers from time to time.

"He plays poker with some of his friends, and as far as I know, it's with (poker) chips or small change," she said. "It makes him feel grown up in one way or another."

"I don't get all carried away," said the recent San Clemente High School graduate. "It's just fun."

Jerry, a police officer from Orange County, said gambling can have a beneficial effect on children. "I sit down and play cards with (his own children). It teaches them that there has to be a winner and a loser," he said. "This way, I'm there with them."

Fourteen-year-old A.C. said he started wagering with friends because "I was too old for Nintendo and too young to drive and didn't have anything to do." Until recently, he enjoyed wagering on an afternoon poker hand or blacktop hoops with the guys, but when he started losing five bucks here and there, his gambling habit came to an abrupt halt.

"I'm a sore loser, and I started to lose, so I stopped," he said.

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