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Richfield Schools apologizes after students shamed for outstanding lunch debt

The students had their hot meals thrown away and replaced with a cold alternative.

Richfield Public Schools has apologized for throwing away hot lunches served to more than 40 students whose meal balances were in debt by $15 or more. 

The incident happened at Richfield High School on Monday, Nov. 11, with KARE 11 reporting that more than 40 students were served a hot lunch only to have staff take the hot lunches, throw them in the garbage and replace them with cold lunch.

Richfield Public School released a statement apologizing for what it deemed an "existing practice" that was "not implemented in line with our guidelines or our values." 

"We deeply regret our actions today and the embarrassment that it caused several of our students. We have met with some of the students involved and apologized to them. High school administration will also be meeting with student government this week to talk about the situation and listen to what students have to say," the statement says. 

School officials did not respond to a request for what the cold lunch alternative consisted of. 

Superintendent Steven Unowsky told KARE that students shouldn't be shamed publicly if their meal balance is outstanding, and that those conversations should happen in a one-on-one basis through a guidance counselor or social worker. 

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"We need to let kids be kids — there is no reason to be wasting food and shaming students because of account balance issues," Rep. Tony Jurgens (R-Cottage Grove) said in a statement issued Wednesday. "School districts need to find a better way to resolve school lunch debts in a way that doesn't demean children."

Jurgens has authored a bipartisan bill that aims to do exactly that. 

Similarly, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Sen. Tina Smith introduced a bill this past summer called the "No Shame at School Act," which aims to stop schools from shaming students whose account balances run negative. 

“Across this country, students whose families are struggling to afford school meals are being singled out and humiliated at lunchtime,” said Rep. Omar said in June. “These students are subjected to various shaming practices. Some have been literally branded with stamps. Others are given cheaper, less appetizing meals than the other students."

"No child should incur a debt because of their financial constraints beyond their control," Omar added.

Richfield Public Schools says outstanding balances in its district currently total more than $19,669, with approximately $9,000 of that carried over from last year. The district is accepting donations that will help cover student lunch debt. 

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