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Poor communication, a new payment system and, some say, a bullying culture within the Salt Lake City School District are to blame for as many as 40 elementary kids having their lunches thrown away last week, said district leaders Tuesday night.
District board members heard a preliminary report at their regular meeting from the district's child nutrition director about what led to kids having their lunches yanked though some parents criticized the report as still leaving questions unanswered.
Between 30 and 40 Uintah Elementary students went through their cafeteria line, picked up lunches and then had them taken and thrown away last week because of past-due balances on their meal accounts. They were then given snacks of milk and fruit instead. The district has since apologized.
It's an incident that became nationwide news, shocking parents across the country who vented on social media, sometimes making threats and other times offering donations.
The report, delivered by district child nutrition department director Kelly Orton, concluded that the breakdown at Uintah occurred because department procedures were not followed, some parents were not notified of negative balances, parents were not given enough time to pay down balances and the school principal was not included in decision-making.
More specifically, in response to questions from board members, Orton said his department did not effectively communicate to parents that a new electronic payment system had been implemented. The old system, he said, automatically sent out e-mails when balances got low, whereas the new system requires more effort to set that up something of which many parents were not aware.
He said the district switched to the new system because it was difficult to get information from the old system and the new system better keeps costs down and is faster in processing payments.
Orton said the department, "did fail in getting information out effectively."
The report did not say who exactly made the decision to pull kids' lunches. Orton cautioned that the district is still investigating the incident, and his report was not meant to be final.
A number of parents who spoke at the meeting Tuesday night said they felt the school's cafeteria manager was being made into a scapegoat for a district-level decision.
Last week, the district put the school's cafeteria manager and her supervisor, a district-level employee, on paid administrative leave when it began its investigation.
Parent Lynn Lonardo, who said her daughter's lunch was confiscated last week, 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," Lonardo said.
Board vice president Heather Bennett, however, clarified Tuesday that putting those employees on leave was "not a disciplinary action." District Superintendent McKell Withers said placing employees on such leave is routine during investigations and was also partly done to protect employees who've been receiving threats.
Board members, meeting for the first time since the events became news, expressed dismay to several dozen Uintah parents who attended the meeting.
"It's been particularly distressing to us to find out it's not an isolated incident," Bennett said. "We share your real horror at the specific happening that's brought us here."
District spokesman Jason Olsen has said officials are investigating just how widespread the practice is.
Some, including board members Michael Clara and Rosemary Emery, said the incident may have grown from a culture of intimidation within the district.
"When this is going on, there is this culture that, no matter how wrong this is, you can't stop it as an employee," Clara said. "I think that starts at the top."
Emery called it bullying.
"This lady who works in the cafeteria, the reason she did it, to me, was she felt bullied," Emery said. "There is some mentality [of] bullying in this district."
Bennett didn't use the word bullying but also said, "We have somehow created a culture in which not one person, but several people thought this was OK."
Board member Douglas Nelson, however, said he doesn't share the view that the incident is indicative of bullying on the superintendent's part.
Clara also criticized the district's policies as not being clear enough.
"There's just a lot of ambiguity there," Clara said of the child nutrition department's policies, "and if I worked in your department, I could definitely see tripping up."
As part of his report, Orton said the district will never take a child's meal tray away again; department procedures and communication standards will be followed; parents will be notified when they have low and/or negative balances; and students will be able to accrue a week of negative balances and still receive full meals. Orton said the district now has about $15,000 in outstanding lunch fees not paid by parents.
A number of parents, however, walked away from the meeting still somewhat unsatisfied.
Lonardo said she didn't think the report was enough, calling it vague.
Parent Jackelin Slack also said she was still unclear about the problems with the payment system. She said there's still a "cloud of shame" hanging over the heads of those employees put on leave, regardless of district leaders' explanation that they weren't put on leave for disciplinary reasons.
And parent Sarah Turley, whose child also had her lunch taken last week, said she was glad to hear the board discuss the issue but: "It was never answered who decided this. That accountability and responsibility has never been answered."
Earlier in the meeting, Turley was one of four parents who addressed the board.
"I think that we need to put children first and we need to put bill paying second," Turley said. "This second-class lunch let's give them a milk, let's give them a fruit is entirely substandard.
"I know this has been happening at other schools," she added, "but really I think it is a travesty in this state where we say we care about children to offer them anything but a full and hot lunch."
Turley said she'd like to see whoever made the decision to yank the lunches apologize to children in their classrooms.
"And you might want to bring 600 cupcakes," she said.
Orton said during the meeting, "We'll find some way to apologize."