Deb Fisher, a therapist at P.S. 333 in Manhattan, has been put on 30-day suspension for raising money on Kickstarter along with a student who has cerebral palsy. Together, they were trying to fund a project intended to help children like himself. The issue, apparently, is that she sent fundraising emails while on the job, and is thus charged with “theft of services.”
Fisher is a relentless advocate for students, according to the New York Times:
During a brief period of unemployment for [the boy’s father], the family moved to a homeless shelter. Learning this by chance, Ms. Fisher began a relentless campaign to get them permanent housing in an accessible building. She helped set up swimming lessons for Aaron. Ms. Fisher, 55, is passionate and hard-driving; her phone calls and emails can be like buckshot. She and another therapist started “Master Arts” for children with disabilities, devising tools to help their painting efforts. She received a mayoral commendation.
In addition, according to the same article, the DOE’s investigation report failed to provide context. It did not mention, for instance, that the Kickstarter campaign was a schoolwide effort supported by the principal.
“We are all very excited to share our partnership with ThisAbilityNotDisability.org,” P.S. 333’s principal, Claire Lowenstein, wrote in an email on Jan. 11.
The goal was to raise $15,000. The school’s office regularly sent out updates like these: “7th Grader Aaron Philip is Almost 2/3 of the Way to His Goal”; “Aaron Philip is $1,621 Away From His Goal.”
In the end, he raised $16,231. The school celebrated at a town hall session.
During this time, one of Fisher’s co-workers had begun making charges against her. According to the investigators, the most serious charges were unsubstantiated, but they found Fisher guilty of fundraising for “her own charity.”
While I sympathize with Fisher’s intent and question the DOE’s response, I see how the school entered murky territory with this drive. The Chancellor’s Regulations (A-610)—not mentioned in the New York Times article—state:
Proceeds from school-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the school’s treasury; proceeds from parent-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the parent association treasury. In either case, proceeds must be used to supplement or complement the educational, social and cultural programs of the school.
In addition, any fundraising during school hours must be approved in writing by the principal. In other words, if it’s happening during school hours and isn’t school-sponsored, it shouldn’t be happening.
So, the Kickstarter campaign, however well intended, had several problems. The money did not go to the school’s treasury; it was not for any educational, social and cultural programs of the school; and there’s no indication, at least in the article, that the principal gave official written approval of the campaign.
Moreover, fundraising for a particular student (even a particular student’s charity) is a conflict of interest (Regulation C-110); staff members are not supposed to enter business relationships with students.
I see the ethical basis for these regulations. They are there to help ensure fair use of funds and to protect students from financial relationships with school staff. Now, it’s likely that many students, parents, and teachers raise funds for charities (and may join together to do so), but there’s good reason not to do it at school.
All that said, it seems extreme to suspend Fisher. The principal, who applauded the campaign, should have answered for the situation, and the DOE should have made allowances for the good intent. Sadly, this looks like a case of “whatever it takes” gone awry. Here’s a therapist who goes all out for her students: once commended, now suspended.