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Parents fear district is setting up scapegoats in lunch fiasco
Education » Parents are skeptical about employees placed on leave, want personal apologies to kids.
First Published Jan 31 2014 11:50 am • Last Updated Aug 25 2014 05:45 pm

Salt Lake City School District officials have publicly apologized and put two employees on paid leave as they investigate what led to dozens of children having their lunches taken away at school earlier this week.

But parents question the district’s response, fearing employees are being made scapegoats for a practice promoted by the district.

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"Our kids deserve the truth and an apology, a personal apology from the district employee responsible," said Kevin Conway, whose daughter, a third-grader, was among those denied lunch Tuesday. 

Uintah mother Vanessa May, whose daughter’s food was also confiscated, said the school shouldn’t have been allowed to "humiliate the children like that."

"The children who got their lunches taken away deserve an apology from the school," May said Friday, "not just in the media."

Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary on the city’s east bench picked up their lunches only to have them taken and thrown away because of past-due balances on their meal accounts. Instead, they were given snacks of milk and fruit. The seizures have sparked parent outrage, a social media storm and reactions ranging from death threats to donation offers.

On Wednesday, district spokesman Jason Olsen said a district child-nutrition manager decided to take the lunches away from the kids. The lunches then had to be thrown away because they couldn’t be given to other pupils once they had been served. He has since said the district is investigating exactly who made that decision. The district is also investigating whether the practice — requiring children to pick up lunches, then publicly lose them when a debt is revealed by a computer at checkout — has been occurring at any other district schools. District Superintendent McKell Withers said Thursday the children’s lunches should never have been confiscated.

Neighboring districts say they identify students with debts before kids enter the lunchroom and provide them alternative snacks when they arrive. 

The Uintah school cafeteria manager, a school-level employee, and her supervisor, a district-level employee, are now on paid leave, Olsen said. He said Friday he could not comment on whether the workers being placed on leave was any indication of wrongdoing or not on their parts because that’s a personnel issue.

"It feels like a cover-your-a--kind of thing," Conway said. "We’re adults. When our kids make a mistake, we expect them to say sorry. Here these authority figures have an opportunity to learn from their mistake, to teach by example, and they’re not."

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Conway defended Uintah’s lunch manager, an hourly worker who some say was ordered to take the lunches.

"She was crying. She didn’t want to do this. Someone was standing at the cash register ordering it," he said, sharing his daughter’s account. 

Uintah mother Jennifer Pia also defended the cafeteria manager, saying it seems like she’s "just been a scapegoat." Pia’s kids brought their lunches Tuesday, but Pia later discovered their accounts were in the negative, and they could have easily have been among those whose lunches were taken.

"I don’t think she should be put on leave," Pia said, "but I think whoever ordered that to happen should be fired."

Parents are being told she was suspended for her safety, Conway said, "but I think that’s a little suspect."

Uintah’s PTA president, Kim Van Wagoner, also said she stands behind the school’s cafeteria workers.

"This was a horrible mistake, and it was made by the district and not Uintah," Van Wagoner said. "It wasn’t our school administrators that did it or our school-lunch workers. The whole incident was as much of a surprise to them as our students."

To piece together exactly what happened Tuesday, parents have had to rely on accounts from young children and teachers.

"I got a call from my daughter during the lunch hour. She was crying and saying, ‘They won’t let me eat lunch,’ " said Conway, who was nowhere near school or a computer to load her lunch card with money.

"I asked her to put her teacher on the phone. [The teacher] told me, ‘This is happening to a lot of kids today,’ and said she would go to the lunchroom and take care of it," Conway said. "But when my daughter came home, she said she was given an orange and milk and that a friend had given her some potato chips."

Conway acknowledges, "I should have been checking my daughter’s balance." But he said he had never received a past-due notice from school.

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