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After tossed lunches, Utah district eyes $49,999 PR hire

School board will decide on March 4 whether to pay Vox Creative to improve SLC district’s image.

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Cheryl Snapp Conner, founder of Snapp Conner PR in South Jordan and a columnist for Forbes.com, called the district’s handling of the situation so far a "case study in horrific PR."

She said the district should have apologized immediately and worked to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.

At a glance

Federal reaction: Taking away food punishes, stigmatizes kids

The January seizure of lunches from dozens of students in debt at Uintah Elementary got the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program.

Kevin Concannon, USDA under secretary, wrote to state superintendents across the country, listing steps to prevent potential issues in dealing with children with unpaid meal balances. The department believes it was an “isolated incident,” he wrote.

But he added, “we believe that such an issue, should it arise again in the future, should be handled in a way that first and foremost respects and protects students from undue embarrassment and stigma.”

The letter continues: “Denying or taking food away from children is a form of punishment and stigmatizes children whose parents are behind on payments.”

According to the letter, federal law requires the department to study how schools handle children with unpaid meal balances, and the results of a national survey will soon be released. The department will also convene a group in the “near future” to find best practices having to do with the issue.

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Olsen did not apologize for the incident during an initial interview with the Tribune a day after it occurred, but he did apologize in a statement later that evening, saying the district had learned more since that first conversation. Then, more than a week later, the district announced it would formally change its procedures, only serving full lunches and no longer discussing debt with kids.

The district and its board made news several other times as well, putting employees on leave, returning those employees from leave and announcing Tuesday night the board would arrange an independent audit.

"The longer a situation winds on, the more it spirals out of control, and now even the attempts to amend the situation become part of the news," Snapp Conner said. "It feeds on itself like a snowball."

Olsen said that’s part of the reason the district wants to hire a PR firm, to see what the district did well, did poorly and where changes can be made in the future.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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