A group of up to 40 students at a Utah elementary school had their school lunches taken from them and thrown in the trash once school staff realized that the children didn't have enough money in their cafeteria accounts, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.
Sophia Isom, a fifth-grader at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City, told news station KSL-TV that a school staff member took her lunch away and said, "Go get a milk." Sophia recalled, "I came back and asked, 'What's going on?' Then she handed me an orange. She said, 'You don't have any money in your account, so you can't get lunch.'"
Erica Lukes, Sophia's mom, told the Tribune, "It's despicable. These are young children that shouldn't be punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up."
The Salt Lake City School District posted an explanation and an apology on Facebook, claiming that staff had reached out to parents about the children's negative balances, and when they hadn't heard back from some parents, a child-nutrition manager decided to withhold lunch to force those parents to address outstanding balances.
"Students who still had negative balances were told they could not have a full meal but were given a piece of fruit and a milk for lunch," the Facebook post reads.
"Unfortunately, children are served lunch before they get to the computer for payment. The children who didn't have enough money in their accounts had their normal food trays taken from them and were given the fruit and milk. This situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner. We apologize."
Utah state Sens. Jim Dabakis and Todd Weiler held a news conference at the school on Thursday, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.
Weiler called the school's actions "bullying" and "an abuse of power," adding, "This person came into a school and used her power to humiliate and embarrass children, and I think we ought to draw a line and say that’s not acceptable behavior."
The school district then issued another apology at the news conference. "This was a mistake. This was handled wrong," school spokesman Jason Olsen said. He added that food shouldn't have been taken from the students "once they went through that line."