The Wyoming Valley West School District is under scrutiny after telling parents to pay their children’s outstanding lunch debts — or lose them to the foster care system.
According to CNN affiliate WNEP, the Pennsylvania school district sent out hundreds of letters last week warning parents they could be taken to court over the overdue tabs, with the possible outcome of their kids being placed in foster care. A district official said the purpose of the letter was simply to “put parents on notice that the district intends to collect the lunch money it is owed.”
Many parents have called the threat “cruel,” however, and believe the district went too far.
“Very extreme,” resident Ruth Bates told the station. “Maybe unnecessary, maybe cruel and brutal on the government’s part.”
The letter, sent to 1,000 families who owed money, informed parents that there have been “multiple” notices sent home with their child, and that a payment still hadn’t been received.
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” it continues, warning that a failure to pay up could result in parents being sent to Dependency Court. “[And] if you are taken to Dependency court, the result could be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
The letter sparked an uproar across the Luzerne County community, and thrust the county’s Department of Children and Youth Services into the center of the controversy. Joanne Van Saun, who heads the agency, accused the district of “weaponizing” her agency to strong-arm local families.
“The way they handled it was totally inappropriate, unnecessary and could have easily been resolved through so many different avenues,” Saun told CNN. “We’re really there to help, and not destroy families.”
The outlet pointed out that the school district’s Cafeteria Purchase Charging and Insufficient Funds policy makes no mention of parents potentially going to court or having their kids taken away over lunch debts. Instead, parents whose student account reaches negative $10 or more will receive “an automated call every Friday until the account” is paid in full.
“I think the person that wrote that letter should think about having their children away from him and put into a foster home,” said resident Jack Coslett, who was upset by the letter.
Director of federal programs Joseph Muth, who penned the controversial memo, described the move as a “last resort” to collect what was owed. Muth told WNEP that Wyoming Valley West, one of the poorest school districts in the state, is owed more than $22,000 in breakfast and lunch debt by roughly 1,000 students.
Four accounts showed some families owed over $450 each, according to the station.
While many families can afford school lunch, Muth claims those who can’t haven’t reached out for help. He said parents who are struggling can contact the district to set up a payment plan, and said the school has considered serving students who owe with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until their debt is paid.
A Rhode Island school district faced similar backlash earlier this year after it warned that students who owed lunch money would only be given a sun butter and jelly sandwich until they were able to pay their balance.
Despite the criticism, Wyoming Valley West school board president has Joseph Mazur defended the letter, adding that the district’s previous efforts to get parents to pay up were ineffective.
“I think you have to pay your bills,” Mazur told NPR in an interview. “I mean, I’ve been paying my bills all my life. So has everybody else. I mean, sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if you want to raise your kids and see that they’re taken care of.”