Uintah parents: We love the cafeteria lady, blame higher-ups
Many Uintah Elementary parents say they can't believe the school's cafeteria manager, whom they describe as a kindly woman who cares about their children, played a role in the lunch-seizure episode that has embroiled the Salt Lake City School District in controversy for the past four days.
The district placed the school employee and her district-level supervisor on paid leave last week as the incident began to dominate headlines and sparked an ugly backlash. But parents are now concerned district leaders could be punishing the wrong people and protecting policy makers at the top.
"I can't imagine that [the cafeteria manager] would have done this of her own account. She was obviously following someone else's direction. I heard from several accounts that she was visibly upset about taking children's lunches away," said Jackelin Slack, the mother of a Uintah fourth-grader.
Meanwhile, the school principal has suspended the school's Facebook page after it became inundated with toxic messages castigating school staff. A police officer was posted at the school entrance Friday.
On Tuesday, lunch trays were pulled from the hands of up to 40 children whose lunch accounts were in negative balance, and most of the food was thrown out. District officials quickly acknowledged the lunch arrears were handled badly. But the controversy has only gotten more intense, thanks to a social media firestorm and community suspicions that district officials aren't coming clean.
Slack and Ashley Hoopes are among numerous parents who signed an online petition Saturday asking Superintendent McKell Withers to "protect the cafeteria staff members from harm and blame and hold the administrative-level decision makers responsible."
Parents say they believe the cafeteria manager did what she could to allow children to keep their lunches and was in tears when she could not stop "the mean-spirited act." Blame more likely lies in district offices rather than school lunchrooms, according to the petition.
"This entire situation started with the school lunch online payment plan not notifying parents that their automatic payments were no longer being honored," wrote a parent in one post supporting the petition. "As a result, the District decided to send their Child Nutrition Manager to the school and take the students' lunches away, rather than notify the parents so that we could simply update our online payment plans."
On Saturday, parents spoke out in the cafeteria manager's defense.
"I tear up talking about her. I've known her for at least seven years and I have been so impressed with her love of those kids," said Hoopes, the mother of a third-grader. Two of her daughter's classmates were among the children whose food was thrown out and their teacher provided money to replace their lunches.
"It affected the entire class. It was a devastating experience to be shamed like this," Hoopes said. "How is that even legal?"
Legal or not, taking lunches from kids is hardly the school's standard practice or "the Uintah way," wrote Principal Chelsea Malouf in an email sent to parents Saturday.
"I am sincerely sorry that students were humiliated and food was wasted," Malouf wrote. "While I am the principal at Uintah, this will not happen again. Once I was made aware of what had happened, I immediately began working with school and district personnel to create a plan to make sure of this."
The email failed to explain the reasoning behind how the lunches were from hungry kids, saying only "there was a misunderstanding, use of poor judgment, and mistakes were made."
Some parents doubted such a heavy-handed action could be taken without the principal's advance knowledge. District officials pledged to investigate the matter and report their findings.
Spokesman Jason Olsen did not respond to an email Saturday.
Malouf said she has been in contact with the cafeteria manager, to whom she passed messages of sympathy from families.
She "loves the students and community of Uintah, and she misses everyone very much. She is in good spirits and appreciates the kindness and support," Malouf's email to parents said.
Meanwhile, national attention has sparked a flurry of voicemail and Internet messages to the school. Most are "vile, foul, and aggressive," prompting Malouf to silence the school's Facebook page.
"I had left it open until now, because I understand people are angry, and I wanted to allow a means for people to express this without taking away time and resources from our school," Malouf wrote. "However, it has come to my attention that some of our students are reading these messages, and are very disturbed."
firstname.lastname@example.org Full email from Principal Chelsea Malouf.
Dear Parents and Community,
I apologize that I have not communicated with you as a group since Thursday morning. I appreciate your patience and understanding in light of how big this story has become and all the dominos that have fallen into play since. To say this experience has been surreal is an understatement.
What happened last Tuesday was not standard practice at Uintah Elementary. I am sincerely sorry that students were humiliated and food was wasted. This is not the Uintah way. While I am the Principal at Uintah, this will not happen again. Once I was made aware of what had happened, I immediately began working with school and district personnel to create a plan to make sure of this. I love these kids, and I take my responsibility to protect them very seriously. District officials have assured me they are in complete support of us, and they are investigating thoroughly to create safeguards so this won't happen at any Salt Lake City School District school again. Although the investigation is still underway, it appears there was a misunderstanding, use of poor judgment, and mistakes were made. I believe in the growth that comes from learning from mistakes and an opportunity to demonstrate a lesson has been learned. I believe in forgiveness.
To the Uintah community: thank you. I have heard from many of you about feeling helpless watching your beloved school be defamed by the media. I appreciate the outpouring of support. I appreciate your concern for all my staff and me. I appreciate your reassurances of trust. My staff has been amazing through all of this. I could not ask to work with people more dedicated to the success and happiness of your children. Please continue to share your words of support with them. I hope you will take a moment to share your words of appreciation with Marianne, Lori, and Erika, in the front office. They have spent hours listening to the vile spewing of voicemails from complete strangers, so the important messages from parents wouldn't go unheard. This has been emotionally draining on them. Please let them know you appreciate them.
Many of you have asked about Shirley and have asked me to share your sympathy and appreciation with her. I spoke with her again last night and did just that. Like you, I am anxious for the investigation to be completed. I wish I could tell you how long that will take, and I do appreciate that the district is being thorough. Shirley loves the students and community of Uintah, and she misses everyone very much. She is in good spirits and appreciates the kindness and support.
I know there is still work to do. I appreciate those of you who have come forward to share your experiences and frustrations with the new payment system and notifications. I appreciate those of you who have shared your understandings of the system and how to navigate it. We hear you. The district is working with the program company to fix the bugs and improve the ease of use. We hear that there are errors with charges and notifications, and we are committed to correcting them. More information will come soon.
We have received thousands of emails, phone calls, and Facebook messages from around the nation. Most of them have been vile, foul, and aggressive. For this reason, I am temporarily suspending the school Facebook page. I had left it open until now, because I understand people are angry, and I wanted to allow a means for people to express this without taking away time and resources from our school. However, it has come to my attention that some of our students are reading these messages, and are very disturbed. While I recognize that what happened last Tuesday was very embarrassing and upsetting to some students and parents, it has been far more harmful for them to read the foul messages of hate and anger towards people they love. Social media provides the means to help people connect with others and gather information. It also provides the means for people to hide behind their computer to spew hate without seeking understanding. I will not subject my students to this on a page intended to share information with our community and celebrate the successes and events of an elementary school.
There have been beacons of hope through all of this. I have been truly touched by the complete strangers who have contacted us asking to help. You willingness to be part of the solution has been heart-warming and is truly appreciated. While childhood hunger is a rampant and very real problem, it is fortunately not an issue which plagues our Uintah community. Although our families have their struggles, we are not a Title 1 school, and do not experience the same hardships that many others are facing right now. For our families who are struggling, we are able to help them with the resources and community support we have. Please accept my gratitude and use this opportunity to better your own community. Please take the money you were willing to contribute to our school, and donate it to your local school district or food bank. They know the needs of your community and can make sure your help goes where needed. If you live near us, please consider giving your donation to the Salt Lake Education Foundation http://www.saltlakeeducationfoundation.org or the Utah Food Bank http://www.utahfoodbank.org. I have complete confidence in their ability to make sure every dollar is used well.