A Minnesota school district has issued an apology after high school students with outstanding lunch debt had their hot meals taken off their trays, thrown away, and replaced with an alternative lunch.
The controversial actions by cafeteria workers were captured on video and shared to social media, prompting outrage over a policy that school officials said was implemented for the first time on Monday.
Per the policy, which Richfield Public Schools said in a statement to PEOPLE was an “existing practice,” students with a meal balance of -$15 or more were given an alternative lunch while standing in the lunch line with their peers.
At least 40 students with outstanding debt had their hot meals removed from their trays and thrown in the trash, and were given a cold lunch instead, NBC affiliate KARE reported.
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“This was not implemented in line with our guidelines or our values,” the district’s statement read. “Once our administration was made aware of the situation, we immediately ceased the practice in time for the third lunch period. We deeply regret our actions today and the embarrassment that it caused several of our students.”
The statement said administrators had met with some of the students involved to apologize to them personally.
Superintendent Steven Unowsky told KARE that the policy was implemented “inaccurately and inappropriately” by nutrition staff, and that students are supposed to be alerted to their negative balance in advance and in private, not in a public lunch line.
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“A hot lunch should never be taken from a child,” he said. “If they have gotten into a line and they choose something, then the conversation is no longer available, it happens at a different time.”
Both Unowsky and Richfield High School Principal Latanya Daniels expressed regret over the incident, and acknowledged that the way in which it was implemented was a mistake.
“One of the things we can do is model failure with grace,” Daniels told the outlet. “We absolutely failed in this situation and our team is working to try and rectify mistakes we made.”
Richfield Public Schools said it currently has more than $19,669 in outstanding lunch account balances, and directed those who wished to donate to a program called the Sunshine Lunch Account. The district clarified on Facebook that the amount includes a carryover deficit of just under $9,000 from last year.
The lunch policy for the district, located about nine miles south of Minneapolis, currently states that elementary students with a negative balance of $25 or more and secondary students with a negative balance of $15 or more will be provided an alternate meal choice.