In Harm’s Way

November 01, 1997 3 min read

The slaying of an 11-year-old as he went door to door selling wrapping paper and candy near his suburban New Jersey home in September has sent a cold wave of caution over school and youth-group leaders who rely on such sales to finance everything from band uniforms to trips abroad.

Most school districts and youth organizations say their rules already highlight the dangers of door-to-door selling. Some ban the practice outright; others restrict it for safety reasons. In most places, experts say, it is steadily being replaced by safer and less-intrusive methods.

But the highly publicized killing of Edward Peter Werner in New Jersey’s Jackson Township has brought a surge of renewed vigilance. The school district where the boy lived has suspended all fund-raising activities by students, and a New Jersey state legislator has vowed to introduce a bill that would ban door-to-door selling by children for schools. One district in eastern Pennsylvania is considering a ban on all door-to-door sales and a limit on fund-raising incentives that might encourage students to skirt such a policy. Half a continent away, the Iowa PTA warned the public about letting children go out unattended, even in familiar neighborhoods. “Sometimes good things can come out of bad,” said President Laurie Musel, who sent the group’s statement on the matter to newspapers state- wide. “If we can alert parents, then we’ve done some good.”

Edward Werner’s death left immediate marks on Jackson Township, especially those closest to the crime. The 6th grader at Christa McAuliffe Middle School had been a top seller in previous PTA fund-raisers and was apparently working toward a pair of walkie-talkies when he disappeared while going door to door. Tracking dogs eventually found his body in woods he often used as a shortcut.

Fifteen-year-old Sam Manzie was arrested and charged with murder, sexual assault, and robbery. Local authorities said the teenager raped and strangled the boy “in a chance encounter.” Manzie was himself sexually victimized, prosecutors said. He carried on a relationship with a 43-year-old Long Island man he had met on the Internet. Three days before he allegedly killed Edward, Manzie’s parents had unsuccessfully asked a family court judge to commit their son to a psychiatric institution.

The National PTA tells its members that “children should never be exploited or used as fund-raisers.” It also warns parents against letting school fund raising become the primary function of a local PTA and encourages groups to push for adequate public financing of schools. It stops short, however, of forbidding fund raising entirely.

The National Association of Fund Raisers & Direct Sellers, an Atlanta-based trade group representing about half the estimated 1,350 companies that help school and youth groups raise money, does not endorse door-to-door selling. “It’s not a widespread practice from what members tell me,” said Russell Lemieux, the group’s executive director. Children and parents most often sell to friends, relatives, and associates, he said.

But Lemieux defended the use of incentives, such as toys and electronic equipment, which significantly increase the amount of money kids and others raise. He said schools and youth groups make about $2 billion a year from the sale of goods and various services.

The Girl Scouts of the United States of America has not discouraged door-to-door sales of its popular cookies, but over the years the group has put more strictures on how it should be done, according to Sandra Jordan, a spokeswoman for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital. Starting in 1959, she said, girls were forbidden to enter the homes of strangers. Today, even Girl Scouts of high school age are told to sell only in daylight hours and never to go door to door alone. Nationally, only about 50 percent of the boxes are sold at the doorstep, Jordan said, down from about 75 percent a decade or so ago.

Unlike the Girl Scouts, some school districts ban school-sponsored door-to-door solicitation altogether, or at least for younger children. The policy in the 15,000-student Billings, Montana, district “basically says no, and that makes it pretty nice at the building level,” said Darrell Rud, principal of Garfield Elementary School. Given the rising pressure in his community to buy on behalf of good causes, “the public appreciates our not adding to the knock knock at the door,” Rud said.

“We all think we live in a low-crime area,” said Nancy Edwards, who just stepped down as chairman of the Band Boosters at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tennessee. “But nobody does anymore.”

--Bess Keller

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as In Harm’s Way