The terse letter arrived in the mailboxes of about 40 families in Northeastern Pennsylvania this month. It came from the local public school district, but it bore a menacing message: pay your lunch debt or risk losing your child to foster care.
David Usavage thought it was a joke at first. There was no way, he thought, that the Wyoming Valley West School District, where he was the vice president of the school board, would threaten to have parents separated from their kids to get them to shell out money they owed, which ranged in amount from US$12.50 to $450.
"I was enraged," Usavage told The Washington Post. "I'm sorry, we don't take kids from their families because their parents owe a very small amount to the school district. It was heavy-handed, it was harsh. It was a scare tactic."
School officials said the communique was at least the third time they've tried contacting the parents who were the worst offenders.
"Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch," the 200-word letter read. "This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child's right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care."
Leaders in Luzerne County, which runs the local foster care system, denounced the letter and chastised the school district, saying foster care is to be used only when children are being abused or are otherwise in danger.
"This isn't what we do, this isn't who we are," county manager David Pedri said in an interview. "This letter was used to weaponise and terrorise, and to strike fear in parents to pay bill. In no way, shape or form are we the boogeyman coming to take your kids away in the middle of the night."
Neither Pedri nor Usavage knew about the letter before it was sent out. Usavage said he asked schools superintendent Irvin DeRemer and he didn't know about the letter either. According to an email obtained by The Post, it was written by Charles Coslett, the school solicitor, and Joseph Muth, the director of federal programs, who signed the letter. District officials did not respond to requests for comment, but in a joint interview with the local TV station WBRE, Coslett and Muth struck decidedly different tones.
"Hopefully, that gets their attention — certainly did, didn't it?" Coslett said. "I mean, if you think about it, you're here this morning because some parent's crying foul over he or she doesn't want to pay a debt. A debt attributable to feeding their kid. How shameful."
Muth was more apologetic, conceding that "it might be a bit too heavy for some people" but adding that the district was "not getting a response."
Pennsylvania Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D) said on Twitter that, "No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically. These letters were callous and should never have happened."
The letter is the latest example of a school district contending with students who don't have enough money to pay for cafeteria meals, so must accrue debt to eat. It's a more private version of "lunch shaming," where schools treat students differently if they're in arrears. Children have been branded with stamps, others have been given cheese sandwiches instead of a hot meal. Some have even had their lunches thrown away when an unpaid bill was discovered.
School officials in Warwick, R.I., announced in May that students with lunch debt won't be able to choose food from the usual cafeteria smorgasbord. Instead they'll be given only a sandwich of sunflower seed butter and jelly.
Proponents of such practices argue that punitive measures are the only ways to get parents to pay. And, especially when districts themselves are in debt, every dollar matters. But critics say that children have no control over their parents' finances and shouldn't be penalised or humiliated because they can't pay.
Roughly 1,000 families owe the district a total of about $22,000, Usavage said. Every family that owed more than $10 received the most recent letter. He said other members of the school board are angry, too, and they'll likely ask Coslett and Muth to send a letter of apology.
On Thursday, Pedri and Joanne Van Saun, director of Children and Youth Services in the county, sent the district a letter of their own, ordering school officials to "immediately cease and desist" advising families that failure to pay lunch bills could land their kids in foster care.
"The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is utilised when a family has been struck by tragedy," they wrote. "The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is NOT utilised to scare families into paying school lunch bills."
Antonia Noori Farzan contributed to this report.