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Cafeteria lady speaks, says she had no choice but to toss lunches

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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Uintah Elementary School parents Erica Lukes, Lynn Lonardo, Ashley Hoopes and Annie Payne express their concerns over the handling of the Unitah Elementary School lunch situation during a Salt Lake City School Board meeting at the Salt Lake City School District board room n Salt Lake City, Utah Wednesday, March 12, 2014. The board called the meeting to try to answer questions about the issue.

By Lisa Schencker

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 12 2014 10:07PM
Updated Apr 3, 2014 05:23PM

The cafeteria worker who took dozens of kids’ lunches at a Salt Lake City elementary school earlier this year is speaking out for the first time — and she says she’s been punished for merely trying to do what her bosses expected of her.

"Miss Shirley" as she’s known to kids at Uintah Elementary told The Salt Lake Tribune she trashed the lunches of kids with negative account balances, giving them milk and fruit instead because her boss was watching her that day. The Tribune agreed not to use Shirley’s last name because of threats that she said have been made against her.

The incident, at the end of January, made national news, drawing outrage from parents across the country.

"As the kids started coming through, I had no choice," Shirley said. "It was take the tray and give them a fruit and a milk.

"I was just sickened by it," she added. "It upset me so bad."

Shirley’s supervisor, a district-level employee, visited Uintah that day to look into reports of high numbers of kids who were behind in their lunch payments. Shirley said her boss asked her when lunch time came what she was going to do about those kids whose accounts were in arrears.

Shirley said she told her boss she didn’t feel comfortable replacing their lunches with fruit and milk and asked if her supervisor could do it instead. She said her supervisor said no, and then watched as she took kids lunches, threw them away and replaced them with fruit and milk.

Attempts to reach Shirley’s supervisor for comment Wednesday night were unsuccessful. But Shirley said she got the impression that it disturbed her as well. Both women were placed on paid administrative leave during an initial investigation but have since returned to work.

"Child nutrition standard policy was to, by all means, try to collect the money [from parents] so everybody would be saved from embarrassment, but the last resort was to take the trays and give them fruit and milk and on that day, we did that," Shirley said.

Principal Julia Miller at Wasatch Elementary, has said a district food service manager visited her school twice, weeks before the incident at Uintah, and tried to take kids’ lunches. But Miller and her teachers thwarted those attempts.

Shirley said Wednesday that Uintah’s principal was not to blame for the incident there.

Since the Uintah incident, district leaders have apologized, initiated several investigations and changed procedures, pledging to only serve kids full lunches regardless of their parents’ balances.

District leaders, however, on Wednesday night said it was not the district’s position that kids’ lunches should have been taken out of their hands.

Board members reviewed district policies and procedures during a special meeting Wednesday night at district offices meant to answer questions from concerned Uintah parents.

During that meeting district leaders distributed copies of a memo sent to child nutrition employees in November stating "Our objective is to avoid embarrassing a child by taking away their tray at the point-of-sale."

They also distributed a list of questions and answers, prepared by the district’s human resources department, stating that the child nutrition department held two trainings between November and the date of the Uintah incident in which they again told employees not to take children’s lunches away at the point of sale.

According to that question and answer sheet, the district didn’t previously have a policy on how much time to give parents to pay up before their kids would be given fruit and milk instead of full lunches. Instead, it was up to each school. It goes on to say that Uintah’s policy for this school year was to allow kids to go up to $5 in arrears before being given fruit and milk instead of a full lunches.

During the meeting, board member Rosemary Emery criticized district leaders for placing too much blame for the incident on the school-level employees.

"The bottom line is our program didn’t work. It didn’t function well," Emery said. "Somebody else besides Shirley was more responsible for this issue."

Many have said a new payment system contributed to parents not knowing they were behind on payments.

Board President Kristi Swett, however, said it was never the district’s intention to shift blame onto the school.

"The district has taken responsibility for the situation, for what happened at Uintah," Swett said.

Shirley, however, told The Tribune on Wednesday she feels that she has been one of the only people to take blame for this situation.

On Feb. 12, Kelly Orton, director of the Child Nutrition Department, issued Shirley a written warning informing her that "you have not met the expectations related to your role as Nutrition Manager at Uintah Elementary nor as an employee of the Salt Lake City School District."

That warning describes concerns including that Shirley provided "false" and "misleading" information that she routinely replaced kids’ meals when she did not, and that she attempted to contact parents with outstanding balances and consulted with the principal when she had not.

It also accuses her of not properly notifying parents about their balances and not following directions from that November memo. It criticized her as well for throwing away fruit and having kids take new fruit.

It says she violated district policy in a number of areas, including through "conduct which exposes the district to censure, ridicule, damage or reproach."

"Your actions assisted in creating confusion and fear that day," the warning states. "Had you appropriately been addressing the negative account balances, communicating with parents, incorporating new policy directives, and working with your principal, I believe that the events that transpired on January 28, 2014 would not have occurred."

Shirley told the Tribune on Wednesday she doesn’t think she lied to her supervisors or gave them false information.

She did acknowledge, however, it was difficult to always notify all parents of their balances because she was short-staffed.

She said she was not routinely replacing kids’ lunches when they were behind on balances, as she was supposed to.

"It was very difficult for me to see these kids crying and telling me, ‘You know my mom didn’t have the money,’" Shirley told The Tribune. "I’d just look at them and say, ‘It’s OK. Somebody paid your lunch today,’ which was not always the truth."

District Superintendent McKell Withers said Wednesday: "It never was wrong to do partial lunches. The way it was handled and the way food was exchanged was clearly wrong and inappropriate at many levels.

"We’ve been very, very clear we don’t want kids to waste food and throw it away, and that’s why it was so reprehensible that an adult would throw it away," he added.

He said two employees were ultimately disciplined, but he declined to name the employees or describe the disciplinary actions. Attorney John Robson said the district does not comment on specific disciplinary actions.

For her part, Shirley, who’s worked for the district for 14 years, takes some of the blame for what happened at Uintah that day.

"I do hold myself a little bit accountable," Shirley said. "I took the trays. I took them and made those little kids cry and it was horrible."

She said she’s gone over that day in her mind many times, thinking about what she could have done differently.

But she said she’s not the only one at fault.

"I don’t want to blame anybody," she said. "I want to be accountable. But I don’t think that I need to take the blame hook, line and sinker like they would like me to.

"I’m accountable for it, but I think everybody right to the top is accountable for it," she added.

For weeks, parents have been pressing Shirley’s case with board members, saying she shouldn’t be made the scapegoat.

Parents created an online petition supporting Shirley that attracted hundreds of signatures. And on Wednesday night, parents asked the board to take a motion agreeing not to fire any cafeteria workers until all the investigations into the incident are complete.

Swett, however, said the board could not vote on anything Wednesday because it was study session not a regular meeting.

Shirley said she’s glad the district has changed its procedures to only serve kids full lunches from now on — and that’s the good that’s come from the situation. She also said the kids at her school are back to normal.

But she’s seen plenty of the bad as well.

"I feel that my whole life," she said, "is just dangling on a string."

lschencker@sltrib.com

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