Report: School That Threatened to Place Children in Foster Care over Unpaid Lunch Debts Refused Donations

FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2017, file photo, students fill their lunch trays at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y., where all meals are now free under the federal Community Eligibility Provision. A donor inspired by a tweet raised money to pay off lunch debt in districts around the …
Mary Esch/AP Photo

A Pennsylvania school district reportedly refused offers to pay off outstanding student lunch charges despite openly threatening to break up families over it.

On July 9, the Wyoming Valley West school district sent a letter to about 40 parents in the area, aggressively hitting them up for lunch money. It was a cliché bullying move and might have been humorous if it were not quite serious. The district went so far as to threaten the families concerned, saying that failure to pay the debt “[may result in] your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care.”

And yet, according to Luzerne County Manager David Pedri, no less than five donors offering to pay off the $22,000 debt accrued by students who could not afford to eat have been rejected. “These are gracious and kindhearted people, and I have forwarded their information over to the Wyoming Valley West School District for their review,” Pedri said.

Among the reported donors is Philadelphia-based coffee roasting company La Colombe CEO Todd Carmichael, who grew up poor and empathizes with the students and their families. “I know what it’s like to be shamed at school. I know what these things are. And I know how my mother would react if someone threatened to take her children away,” Carmichael told National Public Radio (NPR).

Carmichael is not sure why the donations were rejected. “I’m just completely mystified by it,” he said. “I’m still picking through the pieces and saying, ‘What is this?'”

But he has a suspicion: “This really isn’t about the money,” he concluded. “I think it’s about teaching people who are struggling some sort of moral lesson they need to learn, no matter what the consequences are.”

“The state Department of Education and the Legislature had no way of knowing that some school district officials would play the schoolyard bully, issuing threats to separate children from their parents in pursuit of lunch money,” the editorial board wrote, urging state lawmakers to “outlaw such outlandish conduct by law and regulation covering lunch debt collection.”

Pedri seemed to agree: “Foster care is something we utilize as a shield to assist kids. It’s not a sword. We don’t like foster care being utilized to try to terrorize individuals,” he said.

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