Stealing from Children, Part I

Who Steals?

When it comes to stealing, I can share some awful details and they won’t actually reveal where the crime occurred.  Why? Because the details are depressingly similar.

But the similarities are not what you think they are.  We are not talking personality types.  There are two pretty consistent themes in school theft:

  1. Opportunity (which YOU provide)
  2. Rationalization

That’s it.  If you provide the opportunity, some people will tell themselves that it is OK to steal.  Can you tell in advance who those people will be?  No.  A thousand times no.

We all rationalize our behavior.  Most of us will not rationalize stealing, but you cannot tell by looking who will and who won’t.

We are a people business.  I hear this a lot. Get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.  I’ve also heard that, as support staff, we should help or get out of the way. The implication being, perhaps, that  our rules and procedures are hurting a school’s ability to get the important work of education done.

But will the “right people” naturally do the right thing, without too many restricting rules?  Most will, some won’t.  Theft occurs where controls are weak.  In schools, that is often in student body accounts, where the most audit findings occur.

The Journal of Accountancy has a recent article about fraud in non-profits (that equally applies to us).  To me, the most important line in that article is:

“Trust is not an internal control.”

Think of the person at your school or district who you trust implicitly.  Think about their great qualities, their contribution to the education of kids.  Then think about this person secretly stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Not possible, you say?  It is possible.  Yes.  A thousand times yes.

“Nancy” was not just loved, she was the emotional center of the school.  She was its heart and soul.  Nancy had a sad story.  There was tragedy in her immediate family, but she kept her spirits up.  Actually, she was pretty inspirational.  She was kind and generous.  Her difficult situation seemed to make her more sensitive to the sufferings of others.  If a student couldn’t afford a new pair of shoes, Nancy was probably the person quietly responsible for that student getting them.  Not only that, but Nancy was devoted to her job.  She was completely reliable.  The job always got done.  She was never behind in her work.  She never got flustered or needed to ask for help.  Everything ran smoothly.  Oh, and did I mention, Nancy was responsible for the Associated Student Body (ASB) accounts at her school.  Over a period of about seven years, Nancy stole about half a million dollars.  It was suspected that she also stole an unknown amount of cash, which could not be documented.

So if you cannot tell who will steal (you can’t) then you must limit the opportunity.  If you spend public money in any form, this is your responsibility.

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