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Ban on ‘school lunch shaming’ wins Louisiana House support

April 5, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s public schools should be barred from embarrassing or penalizing students because they have unpaid lunch debts, House lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Wednesday.

Rep. Patricia Smith said schools have kept students from attending pizza parties, banned them from the prom and kicked students out of lunch lines because parents owed money for lunch bills. The Baton Rouge Democrat said children shouldn’t be held responsible or humiliated for the debts of their parents.

“It’s not getting the bill paid, that’s for sure. It’s just hurting the child,” Smith said. “Why punish the child for the parent?”

Her proposal would prohibit schools from publicly identifying students with lunch bill debts, requiring them to do chores to pay for meals, withholding school privileges from them or scolding them.

The House voted 71-28 Wednesday for the proposal, sending it to the Senate for debate. Gov. John Bel Edwards supports the measure as part of his legislative agenda.

Organizations representing school boards, principals and superintendents oppose the measure, concerned that fewer parents will pay lunch bills if it passes. Critics of Smith’s bill said children aren’t kept from eating, because they are given “alternative meals,” such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk, if they have a lunch debt.

“We really don’t have any children going hungry,” said Rep. Polly Thomas, a Metairie Republican who said she was concerned “about the unfunded mandate.”

Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican, agreed: “The concern is how much (debt) will each parish have to absorb, and I think they think it’s going to be substantial.”

Smith said she believes schools aren’t doing enough to collect lunch debts from parents, and she added a provision to the bill to let school boards work through the state’s debt recovery office to seek the money by offsetting against tax refunds and other mechanisms.

“We’re not taking the parent off the hook,” she said.

Rep. Nancy Landry, the Lafayette Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, urged passage of the proposal. She said schools shouldn’t “use children to collect your debt.” She doubted claims that the debt would skyrocket, saying fewer than 500 students were denied meals or given “alternative meals” last year because of back-owed lunch bills.

Under the legislation, if a student owes money for three or more meals, a school would be required to determine if the student would be eligible for free lunches. The measure also lays out the notification process if a parent hasn’t paid lunch bills, and the Department of Children and Family Services could be notified if the debt is for 10 or more meals during a single school year.

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House Bill 284: www.legis.la.gov

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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