A New Jersey school district just outside Philadelphia plans to ban students from extracurricular activities — including prom — for failing to pay their lunch bill, according to reports.
The controversial new policy, unanimously approved by the Cherry Hill school board last week, allows the student to receive a hot meal of their choosing.
But it also doles out punishments if the student’s meal debt reaches $75. A parent must attend a meeting with school officials and then pay the outstanding balance within 10 days, while the student will be barred from attending prom, the senior class trip and school dances, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“Sometimes the right thing to do is the hard thing to do,” Superintendent Joseph Meloche said before the 9-0 vote on Oct. 15. “The goal of what we do is responsibility with compassion.”
The new policy is a revision of one from August which proposed allowing students with debts of $10 or more only a tuna fish sandwich for lunch — and no meal whatsoever for kids that were $20 or more in the hole.
Jacob Graff, a student board member at Cherry Hill East, one of the district’s two high schools, said the new policy will hurt students’ college applications if they’re banned from extracurricular activities.
”I think it is completely unfair that students can be penalized for their parents’ inability to pay or unwillingness to pay,” Graff said ahead of the vote last week. “What this policy does is really to harm students in the aspects for their future.”
The district’s lunch debt debacle has thrust Cherry Hill into the national spotlight — with three Democratic presidential hopefuls ripping officials for being too extreme.
“This is cruel and punitive. Every kid needs and deserves a nutritious meal in order to learn at school,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted Monday. “My plan will push to cancel student breakfast and lunch debt and increase funding to school meals programs so all students can get a nutritious meal.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker tweeted, “No child should go hungry at school—period. As president, I will fight for universal free school lunch and relieve all school lunch debt.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has also weighed in.
About 6.2% of Cherry Hill’s 71,045 population live below the poverty line, according to Census statistics.
About 20 percent of the district’s 11,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, the Inquirer reported.
The district tallied $14,343 in meal debt at the end of the 2018-19 school year from just over 340 students, Assistant Superintendent Lynn Shugars said, according to the newspaper. So far this year, the balance has reached $16,445.
School officials have turned down donation offers, including from retired Philadelphia businessman Steve Ravitz, who owns ShopRite stores in South Jersey. They have said the debt will only recur.
“Simply erasing the debt does not address the many families with financial means who have just chosen not to pay what is owed,” said Meloche and Board President Eric Goodwin in a statement, according to the Inquirer.
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