N.J. School District Passes Policy Barring Kids with Lunch Debt from Attending Prom, Field Trips

Rachel DeSantis
N.J. School District Passes Policy Barring Kids with Lunch Debt from Attending Prom, Field Trips

A New Jersey school district is facing backlash after passing a new policy that bans students with $75 or more in lunch debt from attending field trips, prom and other extracurricular activities.

The Cherry Hill school district passed the policy at a school board meeting on Tuesday, a spokeswoman confirms to PEOPLE, several months after it stirred up controversy over a rule that limited students with debt to a tuna fish sandwich for lunch, the Cherry Hill Courier-Post reported.

The policy applies to all students in the district, and bars high school and middle school students from participating in extracurriculars excluding athletics, buying tickets for school dances like prom, attending class trips and buying a yearbook. Elementary school students cannot participate in after-school activities and cannot attend field trips.

“I think this strikes a balance of compassion at the same time making sure we’re holding people accountable,” school board President Eric Goodwin told NJ.com when the policy was first proposed in September.

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It is, however, a discretionary policy, meaning the penalties have the potential to be waived by a principal on a case-by-case basis, the Courier-Post reported.

“This is not an automatic step, nor is it a linear approach as it becomes very personal and very individualized based on the needs and specific situation of individual children and families,” Superintendent Joseph Meloche tells PEOPLE in a statement. “There are direct contacts, letters, and meetings that are held in accordance with the policy to provide assistance to families in arrears.”

The Cherry Hill district made headlines earlier this year when it revised a controversial policy that would have given students who owed money a tuna salad sandwich and side dish for lunch, NJ.com reported. It also would have stopped serving food to any student owning more than $20.

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The outlet reported that Assistant Superintendent Lynn Shugars said at a board meeting that they chose the tuna fish in the first place instead of peanut butter because “we know that our little ones would probably very happily eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until the end of time.”

The fixes to the policy made it so that students who owed $10 or more were to be served the meal of the day, and so that no student would be denied a lunch no matter their debt.

“In Cherry Hill, all children who get in line for lunch, are provided the lunch of their choice, regardless of whether they have money for it or not,” district spokeswoman Barbara Wilson tells PEOPLE in a statement. “All children are fed.”

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The policy that passed on Tuesday incorporates the revised plan.

NJ.com reported that the school district had $14,343 in unpaid meal debt in the 2018-2019 school year, though its food program has still turned a $200,000 profit.

Meanwhile, Wilson told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the district will not be accepting donations from those looking to help eliminate the debt, as local businessman Steve Ravitz said on Facebook he hoped to do.

Ravitz reportedly wrote he would “be happy to solve this issue” by donating money so that no students would be forced to eat the tuna fish sandwich, but that the district never responded to his offer.

Meloche said in his statement he never heard from Ravitz directly, and that calls to Ravitz were not returned.

Meloche instead encouraged those wishing to donate to do so to the Friday Food Backpack Program, which was launched last year thanks to a $25,000 grant that has since run out. The program saw the district send food home with children in five different schools on a weekly basis.

“Simply erasing the debt does not address the many families with financial means who have just chosen not to pay what is owed,” Meloche and Goodwin said in a statement, according to the Inquirer.