A New Jersey mother says her fifth grade son’s school has repeatedly taken her child’s lunch and thrown it away over unpaid cafeteria balances -- despite having apologized for doing as much in the past.
“This to me is a form of bullying," Amy Ross told NBC 10 after the latest incident, earlier in January, involving her 10-year-old son, Jake, who has a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome, and officials at Smithville Elementary School in Galloway Township, N.J. “It’s between the parents and the cafeteria. It’s not between the child and the lunch lady. Let the kids eat their lunch."
Ross’s questioning of the school comes the same week the Salt Lake School District in Utah made headlines for doing the same thing.
The Salt Lake Tribune reports Uintah Elementary School officials in Salt Lake City replaced about 32 elementary school students' $2 lunches with fruit and milk on Tuesday because of insufficient or negative balances.
The Tribune cites a school district spokesman as later explaining cafeteria workers could not tell who was behind on their lunch accounts until after a child was given their food.
Once a child showed a negative balance, the already-issued lunch was reportedly confiscated and thrown away for sanitary reasons.
"I think it’s despicable," Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter saw her lunch replaced, told the paper. "These are young children that shouldn’t be punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up."
On Friday, the Salt Lake School District both apologized and placed a school cafeteria manager and a district supervisor on paid leave while officials further investigate the incident.
The Utah school is located in a middle-class neighborhood, and the district qualifies for federal reimbursement on lunches when students select certain offerings within nutritional guidelines.
"This was a mistake," spokesman Jason Olsen said. "There shouldn't have been food taken away from these students once they went through that line."
The Utah incident provoked something of a national firestorm and even prompted one news outlet in Texas to check how students in their local school districts would fare under similar circumstances.
"We make sure every child gets a meal no matter what," Kelly Grones, director of Food Services for the Round Rock Independent School District outside Austin told KEYE TV. "When they hit a certain limit they're offered a cheese sandwich and milk.”
Ross told NBC 10 the Galloway district has taken her son's lunch numerous times since third grade, and a principal even apologized for doing so last year.
She conceded she had allowed her son’s lunch account to become delinquent, but attributed the situation to her son’s occasional failure to relay notes and messages on the issue sent home from the school.
The district’s superintendent -- Dr. Annette Giaquinto -- reportedly said her schools have a similar cheese sandwich policy as the district in Austin and added, “Depending on the situation, the child is pulled to the side, spoken to very calmly, and everything is done to both follow the policy but also to respect the child."
Then asked by NBC 10 whether she condoned the practice, Giaquinto replied: “Well, I believe there are certain times when I think you need to take certain measures and again, I know that sounds cold...is it a practice I love? No."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.