Minnesota children deserve the best educations possible, no matter their ZIP code, race or economic status. They deserve the best teachers in safe and healthy classrooms. They deserve to have access to the materials they need for class. And they deserve to eat lunch without their families’ financial situations interrupting their day.
Dozens of students in Richfield last week were shamed publicly for owing the school district more than $15 in lunch debt. The students were singled out and humiliated for something out of their control. The meals on their trays were taken from them and thrown away.
The school has since apologized. But students across the state are facing economic insecurity that hampers their ability to learn at school.
It’s illegal for schools to demean students in order to collect lunch debt, but incidents across the state continue. Students may have their lunch thrown away or be shamed in front of their peers, be disciplined for their lunch debt, be limited from taking part in student activities or even kept from participating in graduation. These are all ways students are punished for something that should be handled between the school district and the parents — not the kids.
Our bipartisan bill to combat lunch shaming would have ensured every school posted and adhered to a lunch policy and provided meals in a respectful manner. The policies could have varied by district, but they would have needed to address debt collection practices and prohibit taking away meals from students who are unable to pay. The bill wouldn’t have left school districts on the hook for unpaid debt, but it would have kept the focus on transactions between parents and schools instead of blaming students for what is outside their control.
Our bill was authored by Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate. It had a public hearing in the House and passed off the House floor in the education budget at the end of the last legislative session. Unfortunately, it never made it onto a meeting agenda in the Senate.
We both know a lot can happen in a legislative session — proposals get negotiated and included or removed all the time. But without public hearings we can’t even have the important conversations about how to help our schools work better for more students. We need to work together to make progress on this issue and we can’t do that without a conversation and a chance to vote.
It’s time to let kids be kids. They have enough going on in their lives without having to be embarrassed in front of other students in the lunchroom. Wasting food and shaming students because of account balances is demeaning and goes against our values as Minnesotans. Let’s get to work to make sure this doesn’t happen in Minnesota again.
Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, is assistant minority leader in the Minnesota Senate. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, is a member of the Minnesota House.