In N.J. Boy's Death, a Grim Warning About Raising Money Door to Door
The slaying of an 11-year-old as he went door to door selling wrapping paper and candy near his suburban New Jersey home 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.
And even where home solicitation is a fund-raising mainstay, it is waning in popularity. Experts say it is steadily being replaced by safer and less-intrusive methods.
But the highly publicized killing of Edward Peter Werner last month 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 vowed to introduce a bill that would ban door-to-door selling by children for schools.
At least one district in eastern Pennsylvania is considering adopting its first-ever policy to forbid door-to-door sales and to limit incentives in fund-raising projects that might encourage students to skirt such a ban.
And almost half a continent away, the Iowa PTA renewed warnings about letting children go out unattended, even in familiar neighborhoods. "Sometimes good things can come out of bad," said President Laurie Musel, who wrote the group's statement and sent it to newspapers across the state. "If we can alert parents, then we've done some good."
Edward Werner's death left immediate marks on Jackson Township, N.J., especially those closest to the crime and some parents who may have thought their neighborhood was safe for older children on a short tether.
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 on Saturday, Sept. 27. Tracking dogs found his body late on Sept. 29 in woods he often used as a shortcut.
Fifteen-year-old Sam Manzie, of a nearby neighborhood in Jackson Township, was charged Oct. 1 with murder, sexual assault, and robbery. Local authorities charge that the teenager raped and strangled the boy "in a chance encounter." Last week, the Ocean County prosecutor asked that Mr. Manzie be tried as an adult.
Mr. Manzie was himself sexually victimized, prosecutors said. He carried on a relationship with a 43-year-old Long Island man he met on the Internet. Three days before he allegedly killed Edward, Mr. Manzie's parents had unsuccessfully asked a family court judge to commit their son to a psychiatric institution.
Incentives Mean Money
The National PTA tells its members that "children should never be exploited or used as fund-raisers." It also warns parents against letting fund raising for a school become the primary function of a local PTA and encourages local groups to push for public financing of school needs.
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, issued a policy this summer saying it does not endorse door-to-door selling. "It's not a widespread practice from what members tell me," the group's executive director, Russell A. Lemieux, said last week. Rather, he added, children and parents most often sell to friends, relatives, and other associates.
But he defended the use of incentives, such as toys and electronic equipment, which significantly increase the amount of money raised.
Mr. Lemieux said schools and other youth groups make about $2 billion a year from the sale of goods and services, while the industry takes in gross revenues of about $2.5 billion.
Competition for Funds
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, said 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 also told to sell only in daylight hours and never to go door to door alone.
And door-to-door cookie sales are declining. Nationally, only about 25 percent of the boxes are sold at the doorstep these days, down from about 50 percent a decade or so ago, Ms. Jordan said.
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, Mont., district "basically says no, and that makes it pretty nice at the building level," said Darrell Rud, the principal of Garfield Elementary School there. Given the rising pressure in his community to buy on behalf of good causes, Mr. Rud added, "I think the public appreciates our not adding to the knock-knock at the door."
Loren K. Keim, the superintendent of the four-school Whitehall-Coplay district near Allentown, Pa., will soon be talking over such a policy with his school board and parents. "We're looking at the situation to see if there are safeguards to prevent" door-to-door selling by youngsters, he added, such as banning incentives.
The Nash-Rocky Mount district in North Carolina bars students up to high school age from any school-sponsored fund raising. While parents' groups as independent organizations would not be bound by such a policy, parent organizations would generally seek the approval of the school's principal, said Bob Kendall, a spokesman for the 8,500-student district.
Even at the high school level, many parents would rather take fund-raising sales into their own hands than ask their children to do it, said Nancy Edwards, who just stepped down as chairman of the Band Boosters at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tenn. One reason is safety.
"We all think we live in a low-crime area," Ms. Edwards said, "but nobody does anymore."