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Cover-up Alleged in School Lunch Scandal

A parent says the Coelho Middle School assistant principal announced students with insufficient accounts would not receive lunch. The school district is investigating the incident, which has gained national attention.

Several parents and a student passionately spoke about the Coelho Middle School lunch scandal that has gained national attention Monday night at the first school committee meeting since the incident occurred last week. One parent said this was not the first time her child was denied lunch. Another parent said at least one school administrator was involved in the incident and alleged a cover-up.

The parents spoke after the school committee heard from executives at Whitsons Culinary Group, the private company contracted to provide food service for the school district. CEO Robert Whitcomb apologized for the incident in which students were denied or forced to throw away lunch because they had insufficient funds in their accounts.

Whitsons District Manager John Prunier said the incident that affected 35 to 45 students (the district had reported the number was 25) was caused by a "gross miscommunication." He said the practice as of January was to give students at Coelho with insufficient accounts full meals (a step above the district-wide practice of giving them cheese sandwiches and milk). Employees have been fired and steps are being taken to ensure the incident does not happen again, he said.

While Prunier said a similar incident had never previously happened in Attleboro, Jo-Ann Blanchard told the school committee her son has been denied food six times, including last week.

"My son has called me the last few days right before lunch saying, 'I want to go home,'" she said. "He is embarrassed. He's afraid this is going to happen again ... I'm very upset. My son is very upset, and now he doesn't even want to go to school now. His grades are dropping. It's horrible."

Kevin Lamoureux, who said his children were not affected by the incident, alleged school district officials were more involved in the situation than they have been letting on. He said the assistant principal made an announcement saying students with negative account balances would not receive meals.

"It sounds to me as if there's just a cover-up," he said. "You're protecting your own and I don't like it."

School Committee member Ken Parent said the school district is doing an investigation of the entire incident. He stressed this was not "something that the school system is just going to kind of let die out."

The school committee also heard from Abby Aronson, a fifth-grader at Coelho who spoke about a friend who was denied food.

"I know she was upset," Abby said. "I know that I would be upset if this happened to me."

Her mother Kendelle spoke of students who helped their lunch-denied peers by giving them some of their food. She also criticized Whitsons for firing employees, calling it an "over-correction."

Lamoureux was also critical of the firings.

"As a businessman and a family man, firing four people over a miscommunication is unacceptable in my book," he said. "There are other ways to discipline employees. I think as a company … you could have done something like mandatory volunteer work at a food pantry or a donation to a food pantry."

The incident has been covered by CNN and various newspapers and websites throughout the country. Opinion columnists have weighed in, with nearly everybody saying it was wrong not to give children food. 

School committee members acknowledged the bad press Attleboro has received. Committee member David Murphy said, "this has been a humiliating experience for our community." Committee Chair Mike Tyler said it has taken the focus off the district's good features.

"The spotlight has been shined in a really negative way on the most unfortunate situation," Tyler said. "There's no way we can poo-pa that, but ... there are a lot of really great things going on in Attleboro too, and I just really hate to see the negative spotlight being shone on us like that." 

deb of see-attleboro April 09, 2013 at 04:15 PM
Maybe it is me who is in the minority, Christine. I just think a parent sending a lunch with a young child should provide the entire meal, including a desert if they choose. I imagine some parents do exactly that and would prefer that their child does not get the additional calories. In case you haven't noticed, parents are the ones who get blamed for everything, including childhood obesity.
D Bick April 09, 2013 at 04:18 PM
Thank you concernedcitizen. Someone who understands how the "balance thing" works, or not in actualily. Hopefully they will get the other system up & running sooner than later.
Ali April 09, 2013 at 04:26 PM
How much does lunch cost these days? That seems quite wrong if your child has $10.00 one day and you're bringing $9.00 the next day. What the heck can kids purchase and who else can they purchase for with all this money? You could ask your child where the money went??
Ali April 09, 2013 at 04:28 PM
So if the child has no food at home, wouldn't their lunch be subsidized, hence removing this type of person from the equation? I'm sure people below a certain income level would be eligible for free lunch - especially if they have no food at home.
Ali April 09, 2013 at 04:30 PM
I hope that something gets done to resolve the situation. I think first and foremost the school and the food vendor need to get on the same page with how the process is going to work. Once that is done, bring the parents into the mix, FULLY explain the process and what is and is not allowed. You cannot have a VP of the school speak over the school intercom to children about their balance on their lunch cards - this is a conversation you have with the parents. Finally, you send a written communication home to parents and make sure they sign and agree to the policy. That way, everyone is accountable for their actions.
Laura Dolan April 09, 2013 at 04:47 PM
Since my son has been in school I have always sent him in with a check. I have never rec'd a note, call, or email regarding his balance. He is 9 in 3rd grade. He has been short before and was never denied lunch. He would come home and tell me he needs money, but would definitely forget to tell me sometimes. So, as a parent, I'm always winging it, I never know his balance, for all I know I've been overpaying forever. I DO NOT believe children should have been told to throw their lunch away, that's just ridiculous, they're basically saying, " We'd rather throw away good food then give it to you for free". There needs to be a better system so this doesn't happen in the future. I do not think elementary school children should be responsible for keeping track of their balance. It's a shame it had to come to this and people had to lose their jobs.
Christine Viveiros April 09, 2013 at 04:48 PM
If I send a few oreos with lunch, it still wouldn't prevent her from buying a chocolate chip cookie or a milk to go with her oreos. Getting 2 kids off to school, backpacks in tow, homework, lunches...the last thing I think about is telling her not to buy anything extra from the lunch line, including milk or a cookie or whatever. So I guess when I get her after school, the first question I should ask after "do you have homework? is "did you buy anything extra from the lunch line?" Going forward I would be all for a system that is implemented where we can check the balances ahead of time.
Christine Viveiros April 09, 2013 at 04:57 PM
Well said Laura. You have my vote for school committee.
ppl plz April 09, 2013 at 06:11 PM
I see a few of you get it for those who don’t this how I got Deb of See-Attleboro to understand the lunch account part of this. We have no access to the accounts, we do not get receipts when payments are sent in and we do not receive statements so we have to hope our payments are on the correct account and hope the kids gave the lunch money to the cafeteria worker. You estimate how much money you have based on how much you sent in and when you sent it and how many lunches your child bought. Sometimes they have less in their accounts then they should. Now I would love to be so perfect and error free as some people posting. Parents are responsible to provide lunch for their kids (brown bag or money) but some of these kids didn't have negligent parents expecting a free ride they were off some as little as 5 cents and chances are it was by (gasp) HUMAN ERROR (oh the horror people make mistakes especially on accounts they do not have access to) whether the error was by the caf worker not crediting enough on the account when payment was remitted (hey I've been known to transpose a number) or the kid who did not tell their parents they bought a milk one day and a lunch another day because they didn't like what they brought in or simply forgot it on the bus, or the parent who miscalculated the amount of lunches 20.00 would buy. Online access or a text, email, phone call anything would be helpful. Maybe monthly statements too so you can see the funds are being used correctly.
D Bick April 09, 2013 at 06:23 PM
They just don't get it. If they don't experience the current Attleboro lunch program, they most likely don't have a clue how it works or what happened at the school. So people just assume what they want.
MCollins April 09, 2013 at 06:28 PM
According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESA) out of 630 students at Coelho, 189 (30%) are considered “Low Income”. That is down from 2012’s numbers which was 371 students (57%). http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/analysis/enrollment.aspx?orgcode=00160305&orgtypecode=6 I would suggest that the PTA/PTO, the Attleboro School Counsel along with the Superintendent of Attleboro Public Schools put together a (Lunch/Supply Fund) that everyone (parent/students/community) can donate/contribute to. In the event that a student/family is having financial difficulties, the funds could be used for lunches/supplies without question. If we are truly a community, we should act kindly toward each other, lend a helping hand, be compassionate and think of others first.
ppl plz April 09, 2013 at 06:32 PM
Oh you aren't kidding. I wish too that the news wouldn't report it as all kids having a negative balance (some had money on account just not enough) were denied lunches I think it adds to the knee-jerk reaction that all these parents were just soaking up free lunches and were repeat offenders (not that what they did would be acceptable even if that were the case). I just couldn't get over the indignant remarks!
D Bick April 09, 2013 at 07:00 PM
I noticed that as well. People see the news & assume all kids had a negative balance. I think it was exactly opposite. Most did have something in their accounts. The 6x lady is the first I've heard of anyone owing for days. Let's hope they'll get something soon that will make it accessible to the parents.
JHB April 09, 2013 at 07:33 PM
He did not have a negative balance. ..he was short...i give my child money every week..my son eats alot.but only weighs 69 pounds. ..and if people would start listening i said this started last year...open ur ears...and first time this year...a letter is to b sent home to notify us of balance. And no one got one..so if they dont tell us we dont know...so he was not negative he was short...people only hear what they want to hear. .i get ridiculed for speaking up..what a shame..this is why no one will come forward because of getting ridiculed and Thats a shame...im done talking about this because its not going anywhere. .and again i will repeat he was short not negative. ..it yes it happened last year and was taken care of...
ppl plz April 09, 2013 at 07:44 PM
Maybe your post about the previous times he was denied happened last year was deleted because after this most recent post I quickly scrolled at your previous comments and the news article and did not see anything about the activity being from last year.
JHB April 09, 2013 at 08:00 PM
It did happen last year but was takin care of..like i said it wad not a negative balance. ..he was short..
Jonathan Friedman (Editor) April 09, 2013 at 08:08 PM
For the record, no comments have been deleted.
sally096 April 09, 2013 at 08:54 PM
Perhaps the school can put the account balances on Aspen. I just reviewed my daughters account and could not find it on there. It has her grades, teachers, assignments, contact info, picture, etc. What I see to be the issue is that you can send your child to school with any denomination of money (xxx number of lunches by $yy.yy per lunch = $zz.zz). If your child buys extras - cookies, ice cream, etc. then it is easy to run out of money sooner than expected, especially if they feel generous and buy one for a friend. Parents unfortuantely have no way to monitor their child's account balance at this time. If it is put on Aspen - there would be no misunderstanding about how much you child has and/or needs. I do not think any child should have gone hungry, nor do I think any lunch should have been thrown away. Yes, it is a parent's responsibility to keep track of your child’s lunch balance - but this is easier said than done. Post the account balances and this will never be a problem again. Just a thought….
Duff White April 09, 2013 at 08:54 PM
So, not having a child in APS, I am unfamiliar with the school's lunch policy. I googled Attleboro Public Schools lunch menu and was taken to a site with links for each school in the system. A few more clicks and pricing details and menus were right there. Student prices at Cohelo were $2.60 & $.40 per meal. So if I send in a check each month for $52 or $8 I am covered for the month (for 1 child). If children are allowed to purchase extra alacarte, clearly the balance would be depleted more quickly, but that is my responsibility as a parent to speak with my child. The people who denied food were wrong, unequivocally. The food service handles 80 schools and this is the only one known to have this problem which indicates an isolated incident and not a corporate policy. At the end of the day, like many situations, multiple parties were each partially to blame for a bad situation. Parents, keep better track of what is going on. I believe it is pretty well established that Whitson's will handle this differently in the future. APS should look into service providers which offer online monitoring of the balance and the opportunity to add to the balance online as well. Or we could, wait for it.......let the kids pay for lunch like we used to, with cash.
Reason April 09, 2013 at 09:31 PM
Part of the issue is the difficulty in keeping track of what the balance is. From what I read here the only notice that the balance is low or out is a possible note home with the student. Putting it online and text messages for low balances would easily solve the notification issue. An interesting side lesson to this is some students haved learned the harsh reality of being denied credit.
deb of see-attleboro April 09, 2013 at 09:54 PM
I like that, Duff. Close the expense account and put the parents back in the drivers seat.
ppl plz April 09, 2013 at 10:05 PM
@Duff the schools encourage prepaying to expedite the lunch lines. Kids are given 20 minutes to stand in line for lunch, and clean up for e themselves. Don't forget as I mentioned we do not have statements showing what was purchased or that payments were applied correctly so some of this could actually be clerical error by the food vendor but we don't have a way to know and of course some of it is parent/student error also.
sad case April 09, 2013 at 11:33 PM
so last night we learned there was a deal to give the kids meals in Jan yet the vp in the lunch room was not aware nor was the staff ?total lack on management .as to people being fired Whitsons said 4 . they fired 2 and suspended 2 at least that what the employees were told?
Steve Hopkins April 09, 2013 at 11:50 PM
I thought I read earler in this thread that Whitsons was supposed to institute a system so parents could track balances. but evidently neglected to follow through. Who in the APS system was monitoring this? Or maybe Whitsons was very slow in implementing this feature?
Rob Geddes April 10, 2013 at 01:37 AM
Sally, At the meeting last night, Whitsons stated that they have been working with the administration for a while to put this into place, but have hit a number of delays. The issues/delays (among other things) are getting their systems to be able to communicate with the systems that make Aspen run. The district manager from Whitsons that was at the meeting last night stated that before this incident, the Business Manager of our schools had revisited making this system work and was trying to get it into place.
Rob Geddes April 10, 2013 at 01:39 AM
Steve, The issue, according to Whitsons's district manager, was related to systems issues and staffing issues on their end and ours.
Just a parent April 10, 2013 at 10:02 AM
I send my kids to school with lunch money and assume they give it to the people. It's not until they bring the note home that they owe that I have any idea they didn't pay. I have to go look for the check or void it and write another one. There needs to be an online system where parents can check balances an pay. I think firing the people who serve the food for doing as they were told is awful! They were fired just to make it look like they were taking action and make themselves look better. My children are lucky to have Kate Campbell to make sure thy don't go without food.
Maryann Ferns April 11, 2013 at 07:37 AM
Is this not 2013? Is Massachusetts not one of the most progressive states in the country? It is embarrassing that y'all are still relying on CHILDREN to be delivering checks to the cafeteria and low-fund notes home! How about a program on the school's website where this can be handled? It baffles me that in such a progressive state, this area is not handled better! The one thing I've heard no mention of here is that amongst the bickering adults, there were several students who stepped up and gave of their own lunches to make sure their peers were cared for! Kudos to them! Now how about you adults getting your crap together!!
Diane L April 12, 2013 at 01:22 PM
I am so glad this system was not in place when my children attended APS. At the beginning of the school year, do parents first have to pay weekly or monthly? Then do they just pay when the account gets low? Why cant Whitson send out monthly statements to parents until they upgrade their software/server to allow for online access? Even the oldest accounting software can generate monthly account receivable statements that could be mailed to the parents so they know the account balance at least once a month & try to plan accordingly. Plus parents have every right to see that their payments are being credited to their child's account & where that money is going, I'm not saying Whitson is doing anything dishonest but mistakes do happen. The school system should have insisted this be part of receiving the district business. It is just asking for problems to have thousands of pre-paid accounts with a company, have no way of monitoring those accounts & then depend on children to be the main source of communication regarding these accounts. As an Attleboro tax payer, I hope the school district does not do as they expect the parents to do, pre-pay for a good/service with no way of tracking either receipt of full payment or the good itself.
Christine Viveiros April 12, 2013 at 01:40 PM
Diane, parents have the choice of sending in a payment enough for a few lunches at a time or sending in the money daily with the kids. I prefer sending in a check monthly, payable to attleboro school lunch program, regardless if she buys lunch or not, just to cover myself. The kids don't give the money to the cafeteria workers, they give the money to their teacher. And it goes from there, hopefully to the correct account. I agree that there has to be a system in place where we as parents can check and reconcile our payments to the program.

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