Opinion: Young Girl's Death Not the Result of Too Many Bake Sales

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A young girl died in a tragic accident because ... schools are too obsessed with fundraising?


That's the conclusion New York Times writer Jim Dwyer reached July 16, after reading the results of an investigation into a school trip that went horribly wrong.

How can one possibly turn the death of a child into an indictment of school fundraising? Try to follow along. It's a long and winding road -- to nowhere.

Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering in Harlem groups students in "houses," and the houses competed against each other this last school year in a walk-a-thon. Students in the House of Einstein won and, as a reward, were promised a trip to the beach.

School administrators forgot about the promise until students reminded them (rather passionately). A trip was hastily put together on June 21, and students were accompanied by their teacher, Erin Bailey, as well as her boyfriend and an intern teacher the next day.

Bailey told the 24 students that those who couldn't swim should stay in the shallow water because there were no lifeguards.

Nicole Suriel, 12, went under the waves and drowned.

All this was detailed last week by the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District in a 19-page report on the tragedy.

"Relentless fundraising ... is surely part of the chain of events that led to Nicole's death," Dwyer concludes in The Times.

That's a stretch, to say the least.

Mistakes were certainly made.

"There was a lack of adequate planning by the principal and the assistant principal, a failure to provide a sufficient number of adults to supervise the children at the beach, and poor judgment by the teacher in charge who either failed to realize that there were no lifeguards on duty or failed to recognize the additional danger presented by their absence," the report concludes.

How this is the fault of obsessive fundraising, however, is an immense chasm of logic.

True, fundraising is a major part of life in many schools trying to fill in the gaps left by other revenue sources. There often seems to be a never-ending schedule of auctions, concerts, dinners, walk-a-thons, magazine drives and cookie sales. Kids are rewarded for their efforts like little Amway distributors with everything from color TVs to field trips.

But it's hard to blame the schools. Whether they get their money from private tuition or public taxes, teachers and administrators want to provide all they can for students. They're not selling brownies to get rich. They're doing it for the kids.

Dwyer points out that there are regulations on some forms of fundraising. You can't, for example, sell cupcakes at bake sales more than once a month. Yet, he sniffs, the New York City Department of Education's rules governing field trips don't specify the necessary adult-to-child ratio to ensure tragedies like the one in June don't happen.

Good point. There should be such rules. However, the subject is field trips, not fundraising. If anything, the need for additional adults on field trips illustrates the importance of having the additional revenues bake sales and walk-a-thons bring in.

Bailey lost her teaching job because of the tragedy. Assistant Principal Andrew Stillman was demoted, and Principal Jose Madonado-Rivera was placed on probation. Just about everyone who could be punished was punished.

When it comes to tragedy, the human mind searches uncontrollably for reasons and, ultimately, blame. There are lessons to be learned from the cruel fate of a young girl on a field trip. Faulting school fundraising, however, takes the search for blame too far.

Related: Opinion: Is Tweeting Our Family Tragedies the New Normal?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.