PA School District Lunch Debt Raises Ethical Questions

A Pennsylvania school district (Wyoming Valley West School District) is raising eyebrows after it sentout notices to all parents who have not paid their school lunch balances for their kids, spelling out threatening terms of pay or lose your child.  The school threatened that if the balances were not paid up, they would turn parents into Dependency Court on the basis that no lunches had been packed and school lunch money had not been provided.  Thus, the school could turn parents in for not providing children with a food source, potentially leading to parents losing their children and them subsequently being placed in foster care.

Allegedly, the school district is owed a whopping combined total of $22,000 due to unpaid accounts.  The school sent approximately 1,000 letters to the roughly 1,000 students who are responsible for accruing the debt.  This has caused a national and local uproar, raising many ethical questions.  Such strong actions seem particularly unfounded as the school’s policies do not cite the court system as a potential penalty for an unpaid lunch balance, but simply that the family will be called every Friday once the negative balance exceeds $10.

This allegedly is a last-ditch effort to rectify the situation, initiated by the school’s director of federal programs.  The problem has really spiraled out of control with 4 families being responsible for approximately $450 of the debt each.  Other possible consequences could include students being served peanut butter and jelly, instead of a hot meal until the accounts are paid.

The school’s actions have opened more than one can of worms, putting the county’s Children and Youth Services under fire.  This is particularly problematic as the agency feels it has been weaponized with the explicit intent of threatening families, the very families that the organization was designed to help.  The agency has defended itself and its purpose of protecting the family and keeping it intact, unless extreme circumstances, such as abuse warrant a child be removed. 

The agency already struggles to earn the respect of the community as it carries a stigma and this incident certainly does not help.  The school district has demonized a resource that focuses on keeping families together in the best interest of the child, even if they must assist the family with getting help for rent, clothing, and/or food.

This case brings to light a very tough ethical dilemma, does a school district have the right to penalize students simply because they are poor?  Should our families be ripped apart for the mere fact that mom and dad are struggling to make ends meet?  The school may have just landed themselves in far more controversary than they bargained for by taking such harsh, uncaring actions towards impoverished families.