(ABC News) — A Pennsylvania school district that threatened to have children placed in foster care over their parents’ unpaid lunch tabs is now facing criticism for going overboard.
The Wyoming Valley West School District sent letters last week to around 40 parents saying the district was owed around $22,476 in lunch money, warning that unless they paid their children could be “taken from your home and placed in foster care,” according to Joseph Muth, director of the district’s federal programs.
In an interview with ABC News on Friday, Muth called the letter a mistake.
“The letter was over the top and should not have been sent out,” he said, though he suggested the district would look at other ways of getting repaid. He declined to say how the letter was approved in the first place.
He wasn’t the only member of the district to express embarrassment. The board’s vice president, David Usavage, cringed when he saw the language of the letter, he told ABC Scranton affiliate WNEP.
“The foster care issue, that just had me,” Usavage told the station. “I couldn’t believe that that’s what it said.”
About 14% of families in the school district are below the poverty line, around 10% higher than the rate of the state of Pennsylvania, according to the Census Reporter.
But Charles Coslett, another board member who is also the lawyer representing the board, staunchly defended the letter and its message.
“It merely lays out the options available to the district if people continue to ignore their parental responsibility and the nutritional needs of their minor sons and daughters,” he told ABC News.
“These parents need to look in the mirror…This matter isn’t going away merely because delinquent debtors make Valley West the bad guy,” Coslett added.
Children in school districts across the country rely on free and subsidized meals provided by their schools, often through the National School Lunch Program, which serves nearly 22 million low-income children on a typical day in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).
Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at FRAC, told ABC News that while it’s important for school districts to collect fees, it’s just as important to reach out to families who may need help because many families may not know they are eligible.
“We think school districts should be reaching out to families, helping them apply for free or reduced-price meals and determining whether the child is actually eligible of receiving free or reduced-price meals,” s said.
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