SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah school cafeteria manager and a district supervisor have been placed on paid leave while officials investigate why lunches were taken from students who owed money on food accounts, a district spokesman said Friday.
Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen said he could not identify or offer further details on the workers because of personnel privacy issues.
About 32 elementary school students had their lunches seized and thrown away on Tuesday after a district official arrived at Uintah (Yoo-IN-tah) Elementary to investigate a large number of overdue lunch accounts, Olsen has said.
The district has apologized to outraged parents and said it was working to ensure a similar incident didn’t happen again.
Olsen has said students whose $2 meals were thrown out were given milk and fruit, a standard practice when students don’t have lunch money.
“This was a mistake,” Olsen said. “There shouldn’t have been food taken away from these students once they went through that line.”
The school is located in a middle-class neighborhood, and the district qualifies for federal reimbursement on lunches when students select certain offerings that are within nutritional guidelines.
Olsen said officials started notifying parents on Monday that many children were behind on the lunch payments.
The district was still investigating which workers decided to seize lunches the next day and how many were taking the meals from students.
A district policy requires that parents be given time to respond to account shortfalls.
Parent Erica Lukes said it was “humiliating and demoralizing” when deep dish pizzas and other items were taken away from her daughter and other children.
“People are upset, obviously, by the way this has been handled because it’s really needless and quite mean,” she said. “Regardless if it’s $2, $5, you don’t go about rectifying a situation with a balance by having a child go through that.”
Her daughter reported children were upset and confused and some shared food with each other.
Olsen said school employees were upset by the situation and the district was getting angry messages from around the country.
He said the school principal has set up an account to cover lunch for students without money in their accounts, and other principals are taking steps to ensure that no more lunches are seized.
Two Utah lawmakers have said they were outraged and wanted to call attention to the policy.
If the district does not address the problem, lawmakers will look at whether state policies need to change, the senators said.
“To me, this rises to the level of bullying,” State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross said. “These children were humiliated in their own school, in front of their classmates.”
Weiler was joined at a news conference by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City.
The seizure of the lunches was first reported by The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.