DURANGO, Colo. (KRQE) – The Durango School District is the latest school district grappling with how to handle students, whose families are in lunch debt.
This comes after parents and community members started a petition, with over 1,800 signatures, to end the policy, saying it ‘shames kids.’
School Board President, Shere Byrd, said the district has had a problem with school lunch debt in recent years. She said it hit a high of $18,000 in 2018 and stands around $3,000 today.
“The student is never involved unless their family tells them. We don’t contact students and tell them that they owe money ever,” Byrd explained.
That changed last April when a school employee put out a sign at a middle school bringing the policy to light, telling kids to pay the bill or get a partial lunch.
“That was against policy, the person was reprimanded and basically punished for that because nobody believes that it’s a student’s fault that they can’t pay for lunch,” Byrd explained.
According to the district’s website, if a student has three or more unpaid meals, he or she will get a partial lunch. That partial lunch can be a cheese stick and fruit for $1.25.
The incident sparked outrage and now district parent, Jessica Obleton, has started a petition to end the rule and hopefully create a new way to secure funding for school lunches.
“Kids should not be humiliated in front of their peers based on the financial status of their parents and whether their parents are able to pay that lunch balance or not,” she said.
The district said it hasn’t given out any partial meals since last April but admits to giving them out before.
“I don’t know how many and I think it was very, very small,” Byrd said.
It said its practice is not the same as its policy.
“To which my response has been well if it’s a policy that isn’t being enforced then why do we have it,” Obleton said.
The district said it only has the policy in place to meet federal regulations to secure funding for a free and reduced meals program.
At a meeting on Tuesday, the board tasked the superintendent to look at ways to change the wording in the policy that would meet both federal regulations and community standards.
“We’re checking with our federal contacts to see if we can modify the language in that policy so that it meets their requirements as well as meets the, meets the intent of both what the district and the community want in terms of being fair to students who aren’t capable of paying for their lunch,” Byrd said.
She said if the policy cannot be changed, the district will continue to not enforce it.
“Would we have to keep that (the policy) in place? Potentially. We don’t know what the feds are going to say. And if we do, we’ll still practice what we’ve always been practicing, which is we don’t give out partial lunches,” she said. “We don’t believe in shaming. We will deal with it in other ways. But we don’t believe in giving a student a partial lunch.”
Byrd said she expects the superintendent to have answers on if policy language can be changed by the next board meeting on February 25. Obleton said she also plans to bring the petition forward to the board at that meeting.