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Fund-raisers exploit kids, PTA chief says

Many Utah public schoolchildren are hitting up friends and family to buy candy and wrapping paper to help furnish their schools with new equipment.

But if the president of the Utah Parents and Teachers Association had her way, no child would be selling anything."I think it exploits our children to do that," state PTA President Barbara Willie said. She suggests parents raise money instead.

PTA fund raising has come into the spotlight following the slaying of 11-year-old Edward Werner, who had been selling candy and holiday gifts door to door in New Jersey. The boy reportedly wanted to outsell peers to win walkie-talkies. A 15-year-old boy has been charged in the death.

Although 2,000 miles away, the death has chilled Utah education officials. Laura Finlinson, president of the Highland Park Elementary Council in Salt Lake City School District, believes the PTA will look at its involvement in fund raising in light of the death.

The PTA needs to be "student-centered and do what's best for children, and that goal clearly needs to be kept in mind," Fin-lin-son said.

The national PTA, which says there is no connection between fund raising and Werner's death, is asking state PTA leaders to remind local chapters of its policy strongly discouraging PTAs from using children for any fund-raising activity, particularly door to door, Willie said.

School districts - as well as private and church organizations participating in fund raising for activities - have their own policies.

Murray School District prohibits kindergartners through ninth-graders from acting as "sales agents" in fund-raisers to ensure safety and prevent students from bombarding the community. But Murray Board of Education President Sherry Madsen says all fund raising will be stopped if deemed necessary.

"We can't put our children in harm's way."

Jordan and Granite school districts prohibit door-to-door sales. While Salt Lake City School District has no such policy, it discourages such practices, said spokeswoman Sherri Clark.

So does Davis School District, said Davis Board of Education President Barbara Smith. "It's really important that each community support kids not having to go out to strangers," she said.

Several PTA chapters have opted for fund-raising drives. But expectations are clear to kids and parents: Sell only to friends and family, not door to door, Finlinson said.

Fund raising can help fund computers or other equipment that schools may not otherwise be able to buy, she said. "It is a tool through which schools are able to enrich their environment."

Salt Lake's Ensign Elementary principal John LaMalfa, whose school also raises money for humanitarian causes, says the act can be a meaningful, service and learning project if kids understand the cause.

Fund raising also can unite the community.

"We kind of support each other's kids at work," said parent Pam Sullivan, who takes her daughter's fund-raising order forms to the office. The child is selling wrapping paper and candy to help buy playground equipment at Westland Elementary School in the Jordan School District.

"I donate because I think it's a worthy cause," Sullivan said. "The kids have a choice (whether to participate). They don't have to do it. There's no pressure to make them want to."

But Willie says prizes can tempt kids to edge peers via door-to-door sales.

"The prizes offered are incentive to children and they'll do it (door-to-door sales) anyway, without their parents knowing," she said, adding prizes offered often aren't worth the required effort. "I think it's very frightening."

But Sullivan says her daughter, who has sold only three items, feels no pressure to compete for prizes. Jordan policy recommends prizes for sales be awarded to groups, not individuals.

Megan Marsden, parent of a kindergartner and third-grader at Bonneville Elementary in Salt Lake City, says prizes come without fanfare in boxes with goods to be distributed. And each class celebrates efforts with a pizza party.

"I don't find it exploiting my children at all," Marsden said. "If I didn't feel right about it, we wouldn't do it."

Her sons sell to relatives over the phone. Marsden takes order forms to work and the University of Utah, where she is associate head coach of the women's gymnastics team. Her third-grader even has developed his own cli-en-tele.

"I'm impressed with his skills as a salesman," Marsden said. "They may come in handy for him some day."

Still, Willie recommends the PTA return to its roots: raising money to address educational issues. If school equipment is needed, parents can find other ways to raise funds.

Madsen agrees. "I don't think school should be a marketplace. I think there's a lot of things PTAs can do to raise money rather than have children go out and raise money like that."

Law enforcement officers urge parents not allow children to sell door to door. But if they must go out, kids should be accompanied by an adult or a buddy and tell parents their route. They should stay in familiar territory and not go inside strangers homes or cars.

"Some programs are good and if employed correctly, still teach children some skills like goal setting," said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Rod Norton. "But like anything, it needs to be done with common sense and supervision."