"My mouth was watering, I was starving, and the lunch lady took my lunch away and threw it in the garbage." That's what Alex Coan told his mom when he came home from school in tears this week. The 9-year-old with special needs just became the latest kid in America to deal with school rules that will let a child go hungry while his perfectly good food is thrown in the garbage.
It turns out Alex had been charging lunch, and his lunch account was overdue. The only problem? His mom happens to be my aunt, and she told The Stir this week that no one at his school bothered to tell her that her son had charged too many lunches ... until after they took food way from the child and threw it in the garbage.
How could this happen? And to a kid on the autism spectrum no less?
When The Stir called the Kennett Consolidated School District in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Assistant to the Superintendent Mark Tracy told us that district policy allows kids to run up to a $20 charge on a lunch account. Once they hit that point, kids are not allowed to eat a regular school lunch; they are given a cheese sandwich.
According to district policy, at $5 over, the child is told they owe the school money. At $10, the district makes a phone call to the parents, and a letter is sent home. The Coans should have received at least two calls and a letter, according to district policy, Tracy said.
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But Alex's mom, Christine, told The Stir that she didn't receive a call OR a letter. And she says when she complained, she was told by the folks in the cafeteria at Greenwood Elementary School that her son simply "fell through the cracks."
"They kill forests of trees sending me home pieces of paper about tag sales for the PTSO, but you can't send me a letter about my kid's lunch account immediately when I owe money?" Christine said. "Don't let it get that far! Let me know right away, and I'll gladly pay!"
As for the cheese sandwich, Christine said her son did get it, after the cashier took away Alex's whole tray of food -- hot dog, milk, and fruit -- and threw it in the trash in front of him. But it only made things worse, not better.
Granted, giving the kids an option would seem better than other schools that have made the news for throwing out kids' food and not giving them an option.
But for Alex, it only compounded the problem.
The fourth grader has what's known as PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified). He doesn't deal well with changes, and he's very specific about what he will and won't eat, far beyond your typical picky eater.
"He said it looked and smelled bad, but honestly, he won't eat a cheese sandwich any day!" Christine told The Stir. "Of all the children for this to happen to, it happened to the wrong one. If it had been my daughter, she would have rolled with it, but not Alex."
In fact, the sandwich, and the way the district dealt with it, is what really put Christine over the top. The school is supposed to know how to work with a child who has special needs, she said, but their cafeteria workers clearly did not. When she talked to the school, she says a secretary even told her the school "can't be responsible for your son's limitations."
"That got me fired up. He's special needs," she said. "They ARE responsible."
Alex has what's known as an IEP (Individualized Education Program), and he's also protected under Section 504, a federal law that protects students with disabilities. According to Tracy, a child's IEP is supposed to be linked to the cafeteria's "point of sale" system so a lunch cashier would know if there was an issue with a child that related to their eating (not just autism but issues such as any food allergies). It seemed that there was no such link for Alex, but Tracy said he could not speak to an individual student's IEP because of confidentiality.
Alex's mom said the way it was all handled shows a problem in how the district deals with special needs kids -- from the way it upset her son to have his lunch "snatched from his hands" to the cheese sandwich that was simply not an appropriate replacement.
"It was, for him, a very traumatic experience because of the way he's wired," she explained. That afternoon, he came home from school crying and hungry, and after eating something from his family's kitchen, he went immediately to bed. The next day, he begged to stay home from school. Now, three days later, Christine is still worried about the lasting effects of the incident.
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Tracy said the rules are in place to protect the district because they can't bear the cost burden of children not paying for lunch, a fact Christine said she can appreciate. Her issue instead is with the way the district went about this -- from not following their own policy about notifying parents to not working with a special needs student. Her son never should have been in the situation in the first place, she said, but when he was, there should have been a little more compassion for a 9-year-old.
"I don't expect to not pay for my children's lunch; we have never 'not paid'! But I don't think any child should be subjected to that. They shouldn't see perfectly good food thrown out in front of them; they shouldn't be hungry.
"He's going to be worried, legitimately worried, every time he goes to buy lunch," she continued.
Watching his lunch get thrown out won't happen to Alex again. The Coans have since put $100 into Alex's account -- to cover the $20, plus fees, plus a charge for the lunch he wasn't allowed to eat, plus plenty of cash to cover him in the future -- and they're going to be hyper-vigilant.
"I just am so used to getting so many papers home from the school, I guess I expected them to send one home, to let us know!" Christine admitted. She won't make that mistake again.
But she said she spoke to The Stir to warn other parents that this kind of thing can happen to their kids, that they can fall through the cracks, that you can't depend on the schools to keep you up to date ... because she never wants another kid to go hungry.
"He was embarrassed; he was hungry; he was upset," she explained. "But it's not just my kid, I don't want this to happen to another child."
When was the last time YOU checked your child's lunch account? What would happen at your child's school if they didn't have money in there?
Image via US Department of Agriculture/Flickr