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Unpaid School Lunch Bills Prompt Drastic Actions Against Parents

The Short of It

Some schools institute tough policies against parents as they struggle to reconcile unpaid lunch bills.

The Lowdown

A West Virginia high school is not allowing parents to see their kids graduate unless they pay their outstanding lunch bills. Sounds pretty fair on the surface, but upon digging deeper, this policy may be biased against families who can't afford school lunch.

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Take single, mom-of-three, Stacey Bailey, for instance, who says she works up to 80 hours a week to support her family. She thought she signed up for free meals online but was mistaken.

"Nobody should have the right to tell you, 'No, you can't watch your child graduate.' Ever," Bailey told WDTV. "I called the school, and they said, 'She can graduate; she will graduate. You just can't get a ticket to watch.'"

Indeed, that is the policy of the Upshur County Board of Education, which says keeping parents out of graduation is the only successful way to make parents pay their lunch bills.

"We never deny a hungry child a meal. We also do everything we can to keep student meal prices low for all those families who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch," Child Nutrition Director Cynthia Nesselroade explained to WDTV. "We do have an obligation to expect payments for lunch bills. Counties are not permitted to write off that debt, and therefore, counties do the best they can to get payment."

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Meanwhile, a school district in New Jersey is also wrestling with how to get parents to pay their kids' lunch bills. Like the Upshur Country Schools, Englewood serves meals whether a child has money or not. But now, the district faces a $100,000 lunch debt.

One school board member took a rather harsh perspective on the situation: "They (parents) are not providing lunches. They are neglecting their children," Glenn Garrison told Philly.com.

The board recently enacted a policy that requires officials to send two notices to parents if a bill is not paid; then they will be asked to attend a meeting. The next step, unfortunately, is that the parents may be reported to the Division of Child Protective Services.

The Upshot

In West Virginia, Bailey's bill has since been paid, but she is hoping to organize a fundraiser to help other parents who may find themselves in her situation and unable to pay. And in New Jersey, critics are insisting reporting parents to CPS is way too harsh. For its part, a spokesman for the state Department of Children and Families said, "A parent's failure or inability to satisfy his or her debts to a school lunch program is not a form of abuse or neglect."

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So who's really paying in the end? It isn't the child's fault the parent isn't paying for lunch. But I do understand the school's perspective; they can't not pay their bills. I'm not sure what the solution is, but barring parents from graduation or reporting them to CPS seems rather harsh.

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