Sports Gambling Rolls into the Schoolrooms of Suburbia Easy Credit and Sheepish Parents Add to the Rise of Underage Gambling

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IN middle school, most kids learn about numbers in algebra class. Thirteen year-old Mike S. learned about them by gambling.

At first, his habit cost him a few dollars a week. It started small, minor bets placed on professional sports games as part of a pool at his part-time job. Then he got the phone number of a "bookie" and began placing his own bets. Four years after he started, Mike racked up a gambling IOU of $12,000 in just one week.

Teenage gambling is not new. But experts believe it is quietly on the rise, fed by an increasing acceptance of it in society. Casinos and state lotteries abound. Bookies give easy credit to teens. And mortified parents are paying off their kids' gambling debts, concerned about the risk of mafia-style reprisals.

"No question, it's a national problem," says Kathleen Scanlan, program director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. "We are absolutely seeing more teenage gamblers," says Tony Milillo, coordinator of the Compulsive Gambling Program at the Belmont Center for Comprehensive Treatment in Philadelphia.

And gambling can push teens to extremes: To cover large losses, teens may "start to borrow money from their girlfriends, then steal money and jewelry from their parents, and then start to break into houses and cars," says Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey Inc.

But it is hard to quantify the size of the problem. In the Bay State, for example, Sgt. Thomas Foley of the state police force says parents are often reluctant to take their children to law-enforcement agencies. "More of them are convinced to pay off their children's debts," says Sergeant Foley. Contributing to the quiet acquiescence is the fear that the money is owed to an organized-crime family.

A recent Harvard Medical School survey found that between 6.4 and 8.5 percent of suburban Boston high school students surveyed were classified as compulsive gamblers. Among the 75 percent who said they had gambled, 32.5 percent placed their first bet before the age of 11. Fifty-six percent started between 11 and 15.

The casino industry says it too is concerned about illegal teen betting and tries to stop underage gamblers before they get on casino floors. But Tom Brosig, executive vice president for Plymouth, Minn.-based Grand Casinos Inc., concedes the gambling institutions aren't always successful. He says parents need to take more responsibility. "They think if their kids get caught at gambling, it's no big deal," he says.

That teenagers are into betting is not surprising to Police Chief Robert DeLitta of Nutley, N. …