A school in New Jersey has found themselves in the middle of a controversy, but they're sticking by their decision.
Winslow Township Elementary School No. 3 decided to ban dozens of kids, aged four to nine, from the school's popular "Field Day," which is when all the students get to spend the day participating in outdoor activities, eating soft pretzels, and just having fun. The students will also miss out on the end-of-the-year concert.
The reasoning? Because the students' parents have failed to pay the lunch fees at the school. According to Superintendent H. Major Poteat, the district-wide debt for lunch fees is over $55,000, and the board has no intentions of being the ones to pay it off.
Poteat says that there's already a yearly debt of $40,000 for textbooks, and they don't want to have to take on this one too.
Jennifer Mattaliano, president of the parent's association and mother of four, says this move shames the children and is uncalled for.
"They're shaming children and using them as pawns to collect a debt," said Mattaliano. "No other debt collector even does that. [Field Day is] like the Christmas of school. It's the only day they look forward to."
Each student with a debt was called down to the office one-by-one, where they were then told they couldn't participate in Field Day because of the debts their parents had to pay.
The school's individual lunch debt is $5,000, so Mattaliano decided to start a GoFundMe campaign to pay it off, thinking it would allow the excluded kids to participate.
"Debts are between an adult and an entity/business/corporation, etc," Mattaliano says on the page. "A child should never be used as a pawn in a way to recoup moneys owed. There's always a reason a bill isn't left unpaid and this form of paying unpaid lunch bills is not new."
She was wrong.
Poteat refuses to take any money from the campaign, saying it's "unfair" because they would then have to choose which debt gets paid off. He also believes the families who haven't paid are fully capable of doing so.
"She's collecting money for households that probably make more money than she does," Poteat claims. "We need to make sure there is a degree of accountability for every parent."
According to the district's records, only 2% of those families with unpaid debts would actually qualify for free or subsidized meals, and that the others are just not paying.
Poteat does want to make it clear that no child goes without lunch even if the debt is not paid, but that it was made clear at the beginning of the school year that any child with an outstanding account would run the risk of being held back from extracurricular activities.
Despite the controversy, Poteat acknowledges that the school is willing to work with parents.
"We will sit down with any parent and work out a payment plan," Poteat said. "This is a teachable moment for all of us. Where else can you go in society and not pay your bills."
Everyone has their opinion on whether or not the school is going about this the right way. Some people believe that it's absolutely unfair to punish the kids.
"It should never have gotten this far. Kids should not be punished for the sins of their fathers or mothers," one commenter said.
"Allow the kids to eat, or remove served lunches altogether and have kids pack lunch. There is no need to sanction kids and parents for unpaid lunch bills," another said.
"School lunch should be free anyway," Chanita Lucky-Perry pointed out. "Of ALL the misappropriated education money we are gonna split hairs over LUNCH?!!"
Other people, on the other hand, have no issue with the school's decision.
"So pay what you owe. Has anybody thought about vendors bills to pay, also salaries and health insurance, etc.The kids need to know that there are no free rides in life," Mona Younan says.
"Lunch shaming? Give me a break! Housing, clothing and feeding children is the responsibility of parents, not tax-payer funded public schools," another person says.
"Let me say this, all of the parents rolling up to the school in brand new Mercedes, Maserati's and big suvs' with all the flashy purses and jewelry, are 99% of time the ones with kids getting free lunch," one person pointed out. "I paid for 12 kids this year to go on a school trip whose parents did not send money in with them to go because they could not afford to they claimed, but when the little johnnies and janes get pick up in a $80K car after the trip its bizarre...."
New legislation in New Mexico was unanimously passed that prohibits "lunch-shaming" in schools. Staff have been forced to throw out students' hot lunches because they don't have enough money in their accounts.
One school in Alabama was sending home kids with a stamp on their arm that said "I need lunch money."
“This bill draws a line in the sand between the student and the unpaid school meal fees that their parents or guardians owe, oftentimes because they cannot afford to pay on time,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, the organization the spear-headed the bill. . “Many children count on school meals for the nutrition they need to be able to learn and thrive in the classroom.”