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."