A Pennsylvania education official is defending his district’s threat to parents who owed money for school lunches to pay up or be referred to a court that could place their children in foster care.
One of Pennsylvania’s poorest districts sent letters this month to parents responsible for a collective debt of $22,000 owed for school cafeteria food.
“Was the letter a little strong? Maybe yes,” Wyoming Valley West School District Board of Education President Joseph Mazur told NPR on Sunday. “But it did work, because they're paid now.”
According to Mazur, school officials tried everything to get the money back — “mail, email, robocalls, personal calls and letters,” but nothing worked.
So instead, they decided to send the warning to about 40 families. The letter was signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District. Muth told WNEP-TV that the district considered serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students with negative lunch accounts but received legal advice against it.
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child's right to food,” the letter read. “If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
Joanne Van Saun, who runs the local foster-care agency, Luzerne County Children and Youth Services, told CNN on Saturday that she was “blindsided” by the letter.
"The way they handled it was totally inappropriate, unnecessary and could've easily been resolved through so many different avenues," she said.
Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey denounced the letters in a Tweet on Friday, saying, “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically. These letters were callous and should never have happened.”
The school district has an $80 million annual budget, according to NPR, but Mazur said money is tight, so they've recently had to lay off employees and reduce curriculums.
Mazur also added in the district’s defense that “Every poor kid got a meal.”
“If the Board of Directors was mean and cruel, they'd just honestly say, 'Stop the lunches,' but we didn't."
He added, though, that he didn’t plan to repeat the letter in the future. According to NPR, because student poverty in the district has increased recently, federal nutrition assistance will cover all students who can’t afford meals for the next five years.
Cover: A student eats lunch in an updated file photo. (John Huff/Portsmouth Herald via AP, File)