Utah district explains why $2 lunches were taken

SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah school district that came under fire for taking away $2 school lunches from some 40 students whose parents owed money on food accounts are vowing to make systemic changes to ensure it never happens again.

Salt Lake City School District child nutrition department director Kelly Orton on Tuesday night delivered a brief, preliminary report to the school board pinning the incident on violations of agency procedure and a failure to notify parents that their children's lunch accounts were empty or in the negative.

"We took food trays away and embarrassed students, and for that I am sorry," Orton's report says. "No child will have their meal tray taken away ever again."

To avoid that happening again, Orton said they've created new communication guidelines for kitchen managers. The district also plans to notify parents when their balance is at $10, when its' empty, and then every day after as it accrues a negative balance.

The incident occurred Jan. 28 at Uintah Elementary when students trying to buy lunch had their meals thrown away, angering parents and stirring outrage around the country. The district put a cafeteria manager and a district supervisor on paid leave as the investigation got underway last week.

The report didn't indicate whose decision it was to toss the lunches.

The children who had their meals thrown out were given milk and fruit, a standard practice when students don't have lunch money.

Several dozen parents attended the meeting, and some said the report was vague and that the cafeteria worker put on leave was being scapegoated, The Salt Lake Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/1kQdCaw).

Some parents urged district leaders to hold Orton and his staff accountable.

"The lunchroom staff should not be held accountable for the policies implemented by their supervisors," said Lynn Lonardo, who said her daughter's lunch was confiscated last week.

But Heather Bennett, board vice president, said the move wasn't disciplinary.

District Superintendent McKell Withers said the leave is typical during investigations and was meant to protect the affected workers from threats. Police investigated several threatening phone calls made to the school following the incident, but determined they were not credible, Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen said. School officials cited privacy concerns in not identifying the two workers on leave.

Bennett and other board members said they were as upset as the parents who attended the meeting.

"We share your real horror at the specific happening that's brought us here," she said.

Under board member questioning, Orton said his department didn't properly tell parents about a new electronic payment system, and he promised efforts to prevent meals from being tossed again. He said the investigation was ongoing and his report wasn't definitive.

Many parents were unaware of the system swap that makes it harder to set up email alerts about balances, Orton said, whereas the old system automatically sent out messages. He said the new system is more cost-efficient and processes payments quicker.

But he said the department "did fail in getting information out effectively."

The report gave general fixes for avoiding a similar incident in the future. Orton said meals will never be taken from kids, department policies will be followed, parents will be notified of low balances, and students can go into the red for a week and still receive meals.

Some parents weren't assuaged by the report, saying it was still unclear what the payment system's problems were and who was responsible for taking away the lunches.

"It was never answered who decided this," said parent Sarah Turley, who said her child had her lunch tossed. "That accountability and responsibility has never been answered."