Parents who steal from their kids

The things we’re willing to do for money are beyond baffling.

Friends betray friends. Teachers will cheat their students out of an education. And more and more parents are stealing from their own kids.

In just the past five years, more than $200,000 has been stolen from metro Atlanta school parent-teacher organizations and booster groups.

How did this happen? Parents.

Taken together, they have stolen nearly $1 million so far this year across the country.

Could be more but those were the ones who got caught.

"What we are finding is that at least one new case of theft is reported each week," said Sandy Pfau Englund, a nonprofit attorney and founder of Parent Booster USA, a nonprofit founded in 2004 to provide school support organizations with fundraising and theft prevention tools and education. "The problem is that school fundraising groups are run by parent volunteers where the trust level is high, financial controls are low and money walks away."

Englund believes something needs to be done.

On Sept. 15, Parent Booster USA will launch #ittakes2 to help prevent theft from school support organizations.

#ittakes2 is a national campaign because it is a national concern. These thefts are happening every day, in towns across the country.

The issue can be difficult for schools to address, because booster clubs are separate entities, not officially connected to the school district. The people serving as treasurers or officers handling the money are busy parents volunteering their time.

That alone makes these parents pretty special, but independence can be a double-edged sword.

Theft from school fundraising groups is nothing new. All small businesses are at risk for fraud.

But if it seems we’ve had an unusual spate, credit media exposure. Plus more cases are being prosecuted rather than being settled quietly with restitution.

In January, Christian Antonette Houston, a former vice president of Duluth High School's football booster club, was charged with stealing more than $18,000 from the Duluth High School Touchdown Club. She is facing six felony and two misdemeanor counts.

In 2012, Maryam Arjomand, then president of the E. Rivers Elementary School PTA and the E. Rivers Education Foundation, was accused of stealing $80,000 from those organizations. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Ninety days had to be served behind bars. The remainder of the sentence will be served on probation.

The following year, Dawn Brown Martin was arrested and charged with felony theft for embezzling more than $40,000 from the Wheeler High School Band Booster Club. Martin, a vice president, also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year of service and 19 years of probation.

I wish these were isolated cases but they are not. This is a huge problem.

Englund estimates there is at least one new case a week in schools across the country. Dollar amounts range from a few thousand to six figures, and most thefts take place over a two-year period before they are even discovered.

“There is no ‘profile’ of who steals,” she said. “These are everyday moms, dads, coaches and school officials that have some problem or issue that motivates them to steal. The reality is people everywhere are tempted, and make mistakes and do bad things. If you do only one thing — never leave anyone alone to count the cash — you can help stop the problem by taking away the opportunity to steal.”

The impact is devastating. Rarely is money stolen ever recovered, and rarely do organizations know for sure how much was stolen. And to add insult to injury, when an organization experiences a theft, fewer parents want to be involved, donations go down and extracurricular and nonacademic activities paid for by parent-led fundraising suffer.

Motives aren’t always clear, Englund said, but there are things schools and organizations can do to remove the temptation.

Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett Public Schools, was unaware of the Parent Booster’s campaign but said the district is taking steps to prevent thefts from school-related PTAs and booster clubs.

Booster clubs such as the one hit early this year at Duluth High are considered separate from the schools.

Training to prevent thefts, however, is ongoing and includes rewriting district policies that govern funds and training booster club and PTA leaders. The district is also working to make school coaches aware of potential thefts and to be proactive so that irregularities are spotted sooner.

Here’s what Englund suggests: Always have two people count the money, two people sign the checks and two people reconcile bank accounts.

“It may take a little more effort than leaving one person alone with the cash, but it is the businesslike way to do things,” Englund said. “We don’t leave our Social Security numbers available to others, and we lock our doors at night.”

Englund also recommends using cloud-based accounting software to make recordkeeping more transparent and passing records on from this year’s volunteers to next year’s volunteers much easier.

Parent volunteers are vital to the success of school support organizations. Their efforts help supplement ever-tightening school budgets. But these groups are businesses, and they need to be treated that way.

Unless better financial and other tools are given to school fundraising groups and their volunteers, Englund believes these thefts will continue.

And remember, doing nothing is doing something. The result, however, may not be anything to write home about.