High school seniors who have done the hard work that allows them to graduate, walk across that stage and get their diplomas should not have the chance snatched away because they couldn’t pay for school lunches.
Not every school district, it seems, has shared that perspective. Several in Minnesota had policies that could have been used to punish students for their parents’ failure to pay an outstanding lunch balance. In a story by the Star Tribune’s Matt McKinney, a Roseville Area Schools spokesman acknowledged that a student guide last year included warnings that some privileges, including receiving a cap and gown, could be suspended for unpaid debts. That warning is no longer in the student guide, and Roseville officials said they did not invoke that penalty last year.
Even so, it’s obvious clarity was needed, and that’s why the Star Tribune Editorial Board applauds Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for providing a binding legal opinion that bars school districts from such methods of debt collection.
“I understand the pressures on school districts,” Ellison said. “It’s tough out there. We’re fighting to get all the money we can for school districts. But the law is clear. That need cannot stand in the way of letting a student graduate.”
Minnesota is not the only state to face such issues. In Tennessee, school districts have resorted to withholding report cards or even diplomas until debts were satisfied. Some reportedly prevent parents from attending graduation ceremonies. Pennsylvania eliminated such practices in 2017, with a state law aimed at ending “lunch-shaming” of students.
Ellison said that after reviewing Minnesota statutes and case law, it was clear to him that districts are already prohibited from withholding diplomas.
Minnesota’s Public School Fee Law states that “no pupil’s rights or privileges, including the receipt of grades or diplomas, may be denied ... for nonpayment of fees,” and that “withholding of grades or diplomas or discriminatory action based upon nonpayment of fees denies pupils their right to equal protection and entitled privileges.”
Ellison is correct that the mounting debt faced by school districts for nonpayment of lunches is no small matter. But there are other methods available to school districts that, more appropriately, should have them dealing with the parent — not the child. Lunch-shaming is a cruel practice, whether it’s stamping a child’s hand, tossing their hot lunch in the trash while they watch or, ultimately, depriving them of a diploma, all because their parents couldn’t or simply didn’t pay the bill for the food they ate.
That’s why Minnesota has a statute aimed specifically at such practices, which states that schools must ensure that “any reminders for payment of outstanding student meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child participating in the school lunch program.”
That’s a humane protection for children dependent on others for their needs. Districts should take note. Collect debts from adults, not children.