The Journal News has a story about a 3rd grader at Ward Elementary School that only a mean old ogre like me could complain about -- New Rochelle 8 year old making a difference. In an age when many parents are terrified of putting forward ANY information about their young child on the Internet, the family of the girl featured in the story is actively promoting the web-based distribution of her name and photograph. That's their choice and I am not going to take issue with the wisdom of that decision.
I was struck, however, by this passage from the JN story:
[the girl] started the project in November, when she reached out to friends and family and asked for donations. Although she gets nervous speaking in front of people, she got up in front of her class and spoke about the work she was doing. Her classmates, friends and family responded by donating dozens of boxes and bags of clothing, toys and food, and household items including a microwave oven. The items were donated to Providence House, a shelter for homeless women and children in New Rochelle, to Habitat for Humanity of Westchester County, and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
I have no problem at all with efforts to support Providence House, Habitat for Humanity of Westchester County, Big Brothers Big Sisters. My wife and I have made numerous donations to Providence House including many of our children's books, toys and bedroom furniture as they have outgrown them. For the record, my youngest child is also a 3rd grader at Ward so those have primarily been items that she last used before they were donated. I am a supporter of Jim Killorin's work with Habitat for Humanity, we regularly promote their efforts and advertise them on our calendar page.
This Journal News story, however, appears to say that students at Ward, a public school, were solicited for charitable donations during school hours. It also appears to say that children from Ward responded to the girl's solicitation in their classroom by donating clothing, toys and food.
The story is sweet and the girl sounds like a lovely, caring child. However, she is 8 years old. She does not drive so how she is delivering the donated items? Is she really able to tote around a microwave oven? As a minor, Google would not allow her to set up her account even if she knew how yet the Journal News asks readers to send an email to "LovingDoves@gmail.com", a Google email account. How did she get a Google account and who is receiving the emails? In other words, how much of this is an 8 year old girl and how much of this is the work of adults who have taken her initial idea and run with it?
Church and State issues are also at play here. Although Providence House is a registered non-profit, it was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph and is based on missionary work by Catholic nuns, which makes it, to some degree, a part of a religious organization. Just as I am not criticizing any of the chartiable organizations the girl is supporting, I am not criticizing the Catholic Church or the Sisters of St. Joseph either. I am Roman Catholic, as is my wife, and we are members of the Holy Name parish where our children have all received the sacraments. But I have to wonder if the community is comfortable with Catholic charities receiving donations from solicitations made to public school children where not everyone is a Catholic or even a Christian.
More to the point, New Rochelle residents might want to ask themselves whether another cute little girl would be allowed to solicit donations for a Palestinian refugee group, or Catholic Charities, or the Salvation Army or a pro-life adoption group or a pro-military group or an anti-war group? And why is just one student being permitted to solicit donations at one school; why not allow any child who wants to solicit donations at any school on any day or even every day. How long would it be before a wide range of charitable organizations would be lining up their own 8 year olds to serve as a front for their solicitations, turning our public school classrooms into targets of a wide range of charities, not all of which would meet with such adoring approval by the school district or the Journal News.
In fact, had the school district or the Journal News done a quick Google search for "new york department education charitable solicitation children" they would have found a link that shows that exactly this sort of activity is specifically prohibited by New York State Law. Presumably, the district knows full well that this sort of thing is illegal and once again does not care, preferring to put manipulating the public with "feel good" stories ahead of the law. The Journal News could have found this information quite easily but why let reality get in the way of another "happy talk" story about the New Rochelle school district?
Direct solicitation of charitable donations from children in the public schools on school property during regular school hours shall not be permitted. The commissioner shall develop and disseminate guidelines on the interpretation of this rule.
Q. What types of charitable fund-raising activities are prohibited by Regents Rule 19.6?
A. The direct solicitation of charitable donations from public school students on school property during school hours, i.e., asking school children directly to contribute money or goods for the benefit of charity during the hours in which they are compelled to be on school premise
Q. Under what circumstances may a school district allow students to participate during the school day in a food drive or clothing drive or similar activity involving the donation of goods for the needy?
A. Only where the food, clothing, other goods or funds are collected in a non coercive and passive fashion, such as through a bin or receptacle placed in a hallway or other common area, so that the identities of students making and not making donations are not revealed. Collection of charitable contributions of food, clothing, other goods or funds from students in the classroom or homeroom is prohibited.
Q. Does the prohibition against solicitation of charitable donations "during school hours" extend to homerooms, lunch periods or periods reserved for extracurricular activities?
A. Homerooms and lunch periods are during school hours for purposes of Rule 19.6 and are covered by the prohibition against soliciting charitable donations from students. School hours end when students are released from compulsory attendance, which means that Rule 19.6 does not apply to after-school or before-school extracurricular periods.
Q. Does Rule 19.6 prohibit the solicitation of charitable donations during school hours by students and by school-related organizations?
A. Yes. As amended, Rule 19.6 does not contain any exceptions for charitable fund raising by students or for school-related organizations, such as parent-teacher associations. Direct solicitation of students during school hours is prohibited regardless of the nature of the person or organization soliciting donations.
So, go ahead. Call me a mean-spirited ogre. But there are very good reasons why this sort of charitable solicitation is not allowed, starting with the rather obvious fact that the "audience" for the solicitation is required by law to be sitting in that classroom. Given the nature of children, it is inherently coercive to solicit 8 year olds who are not allowed to decide whether to cross the street by themselves but are being asked to give away toys and clothes and food.
I do not doubt that this girl and her family area well-intentioned but the simple fact is that what they did here is illegal. The school district should not have allowed it to happen. The Journal News failed in its obligation to information the public. Now the Board of Education needs to clearly explain their understanding of the law and provide assurances that this was an error and an aberration -- or be prepared to open the floodgates to an endless line of kids banging the tin cup for "their" favorite charity.