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DOOR-TO-DOOR SALES EYED

Six-year-old Susan O'Rourke will finish her first-ever Girl Scout cookie sale today -- she has sold 110 boxes, mostly of the peanut butter variety -- and as she does, her mother, Mary, will breathe a little easier.

In the wake of the recent murder of an 11-year-old boy in Toms River, N.J. -- Eddie Werner was strangled while selling candy and wrapping paper for his school's Parent-Teacher Association -- area parents are struggling to find ways to protect children out fund raising in Western New York neighborhoods this fall.

Mrs. O'Rourke solved the problem by following her daughter around their University Heights neighborhood, waiting in driveways while Susan knocked on doors and delivered her sales pitch.

"I'd rather she do it for herself. . . . I see parents do it for their kids all the time. But the kids are in the organizations for themselves; it's supposed to benefit them," she said. "Any good parent is not going to let their kids go out by themselves to begin with. It's not like 30 years ago when I went out by myself to sell Camp Fire Girls candy. I wouldn't let her do that."

Kids and door-to-door fund raising: It's a common practice for which groups -- from sports to Scouts to schools -- now find themselves taking heat, as parents voice concerns in the aftermath of the New Jersey boy's death.

Although none of the organizations surveyed reported incidents of children being hurt or endangered while fund raising, parents say the possibility remains. Especially when some organizations set quotas for the number of sales their members need to reach.

"We don't send our kids around our neighborhood. It just isn't that important," said Derby resident Tom Tyler. "My kids would not go out to do door-to-door solicitations without me half a step behind them. In this day and age, it's frightening."

The Girl Scouts this year emphasized safety rules before the cookie drive began, a procedure followed every fall, said spokeswoman Sandy Norton. Brownies and Junior Scouts must take a parent along, she said, while older girls are told to pair up before hitting the sidewalks.

But despite widespread concerns, most schools and PTA groups say the responsibility for safety lies with parents. And some youth sports teams still give children sales quotas to meet as a condition of play.

"There is no districtwide policy. It's done on a school-by-school basis," said Andy Madigan, spokesman for the Buffalo Public Schools. "We don't advise kids to go door-to-door. But that's not to say the individual schools don't sell candy bars as a way to do fund-raisers."

And, it seems, most school principals and PTA leaders -- relying on fund-raisers to support many of their activities -- feel that door-to-door sales are still the way to go. The issue of safety, they feel, rests with parents.

"We encourage them to go to Uncle Charlie and Grandma," said Terrence Smerka, principal of Lancaster's Aurora Middle School. "Obviously, the parents have to exert some influence on the kids. The home should give some guidelines about where the kids can go. It's like Halloween -- there are places you don't go."

Debbie Braun, president of the PTA at Lancaster's Hillview Elementary School, said that the group's biannual sales of T-shirts, wrapping paper and gifts are optional for students. But for those children who do sell, she said, safety "is basically up to the parents."

"The question about that boy (Eddie Werner) is, why was he out by himself, and why did he have $200 on him?" Ms. Braun said. "These are good neighborhoods. I'm not saying it couldn't happen here, but most of the parents here are very aware of what their children are doing and where they're going."

On a state level, the practice of door-to-door PTA sales is discouraged but not banned.

The New York State Parent-Teacher Association warns districts and school PTA groups against "exploiting" children as fund-raisers, said spokeswoman Ann Carmody.

"If a product sale is chosen as a fund-raising activity, members, not children, should be the fund-raisers," Ms. Carmody said.

But among youth sports programs, the rules are more inflexible. Many community leagues set a sales quota for participants, as opposed to the often-optional school sales.

"Traditionally we do sell candy bars. . . . We have 600 kids and they're each responsible for 30 items," said Greg Conrad, president of Lake Shore Little League. "If you want to pay us the $20 up front and forget about the candy, that's fine."

Conrad said that despite the quota, sports leagues have eased up on door-to-door fund raising in the past few years.

"At one time, we used to give awards for the people who sold the most candy. That's when the parents got involved -- they wouldn't stop," Conrad said. "We're not out to make money, we're just out to cover the cost of uniforms, bats and balls. So we stopped doing that."

In the case of Eddie Werner, the sixth-grader eagerly was pursuing a top prize -- a set of walkie-talkies -- when he was killed.

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