Two employees who were placed on leave after lunches were taken from as many as 40 kids and thrown away because of late payments will soon return to work, the Salt Lake City School District announced Wednesday.
The district has not yet said who decided to yank kids’ lunches at Uintah Elementary last month.
But a district food service manager tried twice — once before Christmas and once shortly after — to take lunches from students at Wasatch Elementary, Principal Julia Miller said.
Miller halted the first attempt to seize lunches. “I said, ‘I need lunch served today,’ ” she said.
She was out of the building when her faculty thwarted the second attempt, in some cases reaching into their own pockets to pay for kids’ meals. Some students were in tears at having their lunches taken from their hands, staff told Miller.
But the strategy was fully carried out at Uintah weeks later. Staff took lunches from children and gave them fruit and milk, sparking national controversy. District spokesman Jason Olsen said Wednesday he couldn’t comment on why the employees on leave — Uintah’s cafeteria manager and her district-level supervisor — were reinstated or whether they’ve been cleared of wrongdoing, because it’s a personnel issue. He said the district’s investigation is ongoing.
Parents have defended the school’s cafeteria manager, contending she was following directions from higher up. Several Uintah parents expressed joy Wednesday upon hearing the school’s cafeteria manager will return to work Thursday.
Parent Jessica Guynn, whose fourth-grader had her lunch taken, said it wasn’t the cafeteria workers’ fault that her daughter came home that day “starving, upset and embarrassed.”
“I think someone at the higher levels of the district is making bad decisions, and I hope they address that,” Guynn said. “If it’s a group decision, I’m extremely alarmed a group of adults responsible for the welfare of children would have such a lack of judgment on how to handle this, and if it was just one employee’s decision, I hope that person is dismissed.”
‘No child will ... be humiliated’ • The district has apologized and changed its procedures, pledging now to give all kids full lunches regardless of their debt.
The district has also instructed its cafeteria workers to no longer discuss lunch debt with kids, instead bringing up the issue only with parents.
Parents will also be notified daily and weekly about lunch debts and low balances, respectively.
Many parents have said they were behind because they didn’t realize the district had a new electronic payment system that required them to set up new notifications.
Wasatch’s Miller said at the first attempt to take meals from her students, she asked to see the list of parents behind on payments. She had a feeling most of them just didn’t know they were behind, she said.
She and her staff reached out to the parents and within a day had reached all but five or six of the more than 30 on the list, she said.
Miller said she is so far pleased with the way the district has tried to correct the problem.
“Our district has absolutely responded now appropriately,” Miller said. “No child will ever go without a lunch. No child will ever again be humiliated.”
Olsen said the district has also heard reports of lunch seizures occurring at other schools, though he didn’t know exactly how many.
‘You tie Uintah to this story’ • Uintah parent Ashley Hoopes said she burst into tears upon hearing the school’s cafeteria manager had been reinstated.
The leave “felt so unkind and so unfair to her,” Hoopes said. “It sent a message to parents and the community that she had done something wrong.”
District leaders have said the employees were not placed on leave for disciplinary reasons, but some parents felt they were stigmatized.
Hoopes, however, said some parents have also been dismayed at how other aspects of the situation have been handled.
Uintah’s principal, Chelsea Malouf, sent an email to some parents earlier this month warning them about talking to the media.
“Every time one of you speaks on camera, radio, or for a newspaper, you tie Uintah to this story as the perpetrator of injustice,” Malouf wrote.
“... This media publicity puts every child and staff member at Uintah at risk. ... Every time one of you is interviewed, my office and inbox are filled with Uintah parents and teachers who are worried about school security and wondering when you will stop.”
The school fielded death threats after the lunch seizures drew national attention.
Hoopes, however, said the email made parents feel like they were under attack. “We were made to feel like we weren’t allowed to voice opinions,” Hoopes said.
And Guynn said that though she didn’t receive that email, she wonders what might have happened if the media hadn’t found out about the incident.
Attempts to reach Malouf for comment Wednesday, were unsuccessful.
Olsen, at the district, said Wednesday he was not aware of that email. Olsen said he does not know when the district’s investigation into the lunch issue might conclude.