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Unanswered questions remain after students' lunches confiscated over unpaid bill

In a story that went viral Thursday, about 40 students at an elementary school in Salt Lake City had their meals taken and thrown away Tuesday because there were outstanding balances in their accounts.

Students eat breakfast at their desks at Odyssey Elementary School in Ogden, UT, September 3, 2013
Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

According to Salt Lake City District spokesman Jason Olsen, once the district's child-nutrition department discovered that a large number of students at Uintah Elementary School owed money for lunches, the decision was made to withhold them. However, that couldn't happen until after the students had received their lunches. It's not clear why, but cafeteria workers were unable to tell which kids owed money until after they went through the lunch line.

One parent whose 11-year-old daughter had her lunch taken from her told the Salt Lake Tribune and KSL-TV it was "traumatic" and "despicable."

"These are young children that shouldn’t be punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up," she said.

Children whose lunches were taken were given milk and fruit instead.

The school district has since apologized, saying in a statement on its Facebook page that the "situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner."

But the district also noted that parents are told about balances once a week. Also, staffers typically tell students about any balances as they go through the lunch line and send home notifications to parents each week.

However, when contacted by the district on Monday and Tuesday, parents said they were surprised to hear they had outstanding balances. The one mother quoted by media outlets said she never received a notification that her daughter would have her lunch taken and as far as she knew, she was all paid up.

The district is conducting a review to try and determine whether there were lapses in the notification process and where they might've occurred.

Reaction on social media sites has been largely one of shock and anger, but several questions still remain. Essentially, here are the arguments:

  • Pay your bills. It's hard to know everything the mother was thinking base on what the reporters quoted or showed in video footage. Not receiving a notification or not knowing the lunch would be taken is no excuse. You make a deal to pay your bills, you pay them. Just ask the bank or the utility company. Is it a safe bet to say the mother will be a little more vigilant in assuring her child won't be put through this situation again?
  • Is it fair to make kids suffer for the transgressions of their parents?
  • Were the parents irresponsible or dirt poor, perhaps forced to choose between paying for the school lunches, or putting dinner on the table? Punishing poverty doesn't do anything to stop it but we don't know if these families are impoverished. The reporters didn't ask that of the one mother who was quoted and there's no indication they talked to any other parents. It doesn't appear they asked the school district about it, either. About 36 percent of students in Utah schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to Utahns Against Hunger, an advocacy group.
  • How much money is the district saving by doing this? Probably not a lot. On the other hand, how long do you let something like this go on? Was this a chronic problem with these lapsed payments? We don't know that, either.
  • It seems odd in today's digital world that cafeteria workers couldn't see which kids owed money until after they purchased something. It's obvious the district knew who owed money; they were already calling those people the day before. If they were able to address it preemptively, couldn't the school have done so? That way, you don't embarrass the kids and you don't throw out the food --two of the biggest complaints being made about the whole situation.
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