Her knuckles turned white as she gripped her steering wheel tighter. She held back her tears, hoping her son wouldn’t notice how upset she was.
The drive from school had never been this unnerving. They weren’t even in the house when she asked him about his arm. His eyes were glued to the floor as he rolled up his sleeve. That’s when she saw it. Whoever had done this would pay.
A Perfect Fit
Tara Chavez had always been a loving mom. She took her time vetting all the schools in Phoenix before landing on Desert Cove Elementary.
Cayden, her son, was a wonderful and equally sensitive soul. She wanted a place where he would be treated as such, and this school seemed like the best fit. It had suitable-sized classes, and the courses were all learner-centered. Tara thought she’d made a good choice.
Glad to have found somewhere her son would feel at home, Tara filled out the school’s paperwork and enrolled him. He had a curious mind, and she hoped he’d love Desert Cove Elementary.
She had no idea that enrolling Cayden in this school would end up with an online controversy and her regretting her decision.
A Good Experience
Cayden swiftly started his classes, and for a full term, everything seemed to be going great. But out of nowhere, things took a sudden turn.
Little Cayden was an intelligent kid. He excelled in his classes and made many friends while in them. He also loved his teachers and couldn’t wait to go to school each morning. But then it happened.
As she always did in the afternoon, Tara drove to Cayden’s school and picked him up. But one look at his face and she knew something was off. Was someone bullying him back at school? Her blood started boiling.
Getting a hold of herself, she asked Cayden about his day. She needed to get to the bottom of this without upsetting him.
Cayden’s voice was devoid of any emotion. “It was fine,” he answered in a whisper and resumed gazing out his window. Something was definitely off.
Tara asked if anything had happened to him at school, but he kept quiet. Seeing he didn’t want to discuss the matter, she decided to let it go and discuss it with her husband when they got home. But then she saw the mark on his arm.
Tara glanced over, trying to get a better look at the mark. It looked like dirt at first, and Tara hoped it was. But the more she studied it, the more she realized there was more to it.
Whatever had soured Cayden’s mood had a direct tie to the mark on his arm. Tara leaned into her seat, thinking of the best way to approach the situation.
What’s Going On?
Tara’s mind raced with suspicions. But she couldn’t show Cayden that her worry was simmering. She decided to give the road her full attention, knowing she would deal with the issue when they got home.
Her knuckles tinged white as she gripped the wheel. She couldn’t let her son know what was going on in her mind. But one thing was for sure: whoever did this would pay.
Take A Seat
When they got home, Cayden started toward his room, only for Tara to stop him. She pulled out his favorite chair, asked him to sit, and called his dad.
Cayden’s dad took him in his arms and playfully sat him on the seat. Tara asked him to roll up his sleeve as he had in the car, and when he did, she leaned in to finally have a closer look.
A Closer Look
“I asked him if they gave him a choice, and he said no,” the angry mom explained while talking to a reporter. According to Cayden, the person just grabbed his wrist and stamped it.
His arm was marked in ink, although he hadn’t written anything. His dad took a closer look, hoping to decipher the stamp. What he discovered left him speechless.
In Capital Letters
Immediately, her husband took a picture of Cayden’s arm. “He was screaming and crying the entire time,” Tara said. “He was humiliated, didn’t even want me to take a picture of it.”
There, in thick blue capital letters, were the words “LUNCH MONEY,” stamped on her son’s arm. But what was the meaning of this? And who had done it?
Cayden explained that it was the lunch lady. Apparently, she had felt the need to publicly shame him in front of the entire school. The more his parents heard, the angrier they became. (https://drvallecillos.com/)
The fact that her son felt so embarrassed by the stamp was the most concerning part. Why wouldn’t the school send her a reminder via email if her son’s account was running low? Angered, they posted this incident online, was this right?
It wasn’t long before Tara’s post about the stamp exploded online. It quickly racked up hundreds of comments and shares. And most parents were supportive, saying that Tara’s anger was completely justified.
“Like, y’all couldn’t send a note?” her friend asked. “Y’all couldn’t think for two seconds about the numerous references of branding someone as a stigma?”
Out Of Line
“What kind of twisted person holds a child’s arm & applies a big, block-lettered stamp in black ink to their little arm?!!” another user wrote.
Most people who saw the post said that the stamp was “unacceptable.” But what would the school have to say for themselves? Shortly after the post went viral, Tara heard from them.
Desert Cove Principal, Stacey Orest, stated that cafeteria staff had never intended to embarrass students with “reminder stamps,” and that they are always “supposed to ask them if they want a stamp or a reminder slip.”
But that answer wasn’t good enough for Tara or the other parents who were on her side. They wanted the “reminder” stamps gone.
The following Monday, after the extensive and prominent backlash manifested all across social media, the school was forced to make an official statement on the matter. Paradise Valley Unified School District spokesperson Becky Kelbaugh said:
“It was never the intention of Desert Cove Elementary School administration and staff to embarrass any student by using the stamp.”
No More Stamps
She continued, “Students were given the choice between a letter or reminder stamp. Going forward, Desert Cove Elementary School will send a letter home notifying parents of low lunch balances.”
She also told the Phoenix New Times that Desert Cove will discontinue “reminder stamps” about low lunch-money accounts. But this isn’t the first time this has happened…
Jon Bivens’ son, a third-grader who attends Gardendale Elementary School, came home with a similar stamp on his arm. At first, Jon didn’t think much of it, “I thought it was a good job stamp,” he said.
Then, he saw that it was a stamp that said, “I need lunch money.” Jon was surprised, as the school usually sent them a notification when his son’s account was running low.
Jon and his wife send their son to school with packed lunches but allow him to occasionally buy treats from the school’s cafeteria.
But what angered Jon the most was that his son had had a positive balance on his cafeteria account at the end of the term. At the time of the offending stamp, Jon’s son still had a balance of $1.38.
Rallying For A Stamp-less Future!
“They herd these kids like cattle,” the angry dad said. He also said that his son was “branded.” “When you start stamping a message on a child’s body instead of calling…it’s not okay,” he said in an interview.
“It’s a form of bullying and shaming the kids,” he added. However, sometimes things can be even worse.
A Sadly Standing Practice
Unfortunately, there are many schools all across the country where so-called “lunch shaming” is still very much alive.
Many parents and even school cafeteria workers oppose it, as it dehumanizes children and exposes them to shame and scorn, but it’s still the norm for some schools. And sometimes, things can be even worse than a humiliating and stigmatizing stamp.
Lunch shaming can be defined as singling out a kid whose parents have school lunch debt. However, the way in which the kid is singled out can vary, and each school often feels free to go as far as the state law allows.
But sometimes, this has resulted in callous, inhuman punishments for children whose parents can’t afford school lunch.
Unfortunately, stamping is a relatively common shaming practice if a kid’s parents owe money in the concept of lunch debt; another usual practice is swapping the kid’s hot meal for a colder, lower-quality one.
However, sometimes it gets worse. As inhuman as it sounds, some schools make the kids work the debt off or verbally shame them in front of peers.
Many schools have gotten in trouble for these sorts of tactics and, just like in the stories above, faced backlash from parents and the media.
However, others defend it as a way to reduce school debt in a public schooling system with plenty on their plates in the form of budgeting problems. But does this really justify certain things?
Many people, both parents and former students, can tell real horror stories about how they or their kids were treated by the school staff when they couldn’t afford their lunch.
Here, we have compiled some of them, in hopes that they will make the right people think twice about the ethics of lunch shaming and the lenient legislation about it in some states.
“This was back in the early ’00s, but we were undocumented, my parents hardly spoke English, and I was in the red by $5. They threw out my pizza and gave me a plain peanut butter sandwich with water.”
“I cried so much that the lunch ladies took pity on me and bought me the pizza, but not until after 100+ elementary school kids stared at me crying for 10 minutes.”
“Each time I didn’t have money on my lunch card, I was made to serve lunch to my classmates along with the other students who couldn’t afford to eat. We then waited until the last student was served before we could serve ourselves.”
“And if that wasn’t bad enough, while the rest of the students got to enjoy recess after eating, we had to stay behind and wipe the cafeteria tables. Each of us was punished for our parents’ financial situation, and in hindsight, I feel sad for little 7-year-old me.”
“Not me, but I had a friend, and at her school they literally reserved tables for people who didn’t get the priced lunches. There were free lunches, but if you got them, you couldn’t sit with people who paid for it.”
“It took them six MONTHS to stop this because they realized they were losing money because all the kids were getting the free lunches to sit with their friends.”
“I wasn’t lunch-shamed, but I saw kids get lunch-shamed when I worked as a lunch lady in an elementary school. Myself and the other ladies with whom I worked would often pool money to pay for the kids with delinquent accounts.”
“Our boss would reprimand us if she caught us doing it and would rudely take the kids’ lunch out of his/her hands and throw it in the trash.”
“In elementary school, it got to the point that one lunch lady was nice enough to let me slowly pay a quarter every meal to pay for something — but some days they would refuse me anything at all to eat.”
“They would tell me every time in front of all my peers that my parents owed money and that’s why I wasn’t able to eat lunch that day. It may have been the reason I developed an eating disorder.”
Working For Food
“I ‘worked’ in the cafeteria in elementary and junior high whenever possible because my family had trouble affording lunch. I would leave for lunch about 15 minutes early to help the lunch ladies set up and serve food, so that I could get a free meal.”
“I enjoyed leaving class early, but other kids made fun of me for having to work during lunch. I felt like I had to do it to help my single mom not worry about if I was eating at school.”
“This was before the electronic lunch cards. My school handed out different-colored lunch tickets. Blue meant you paid full price, pink meant you got reduced prices, and yellow meant you got free lunches.”
“Those different-colored lunch tickets were not necessary. This was awful because the kids who could pay full price would pick on the other kids who had a pink or yellow ticket.”
16 Million Children
As you can see, these practices can sometimes be cruel and impact kids’ emotional growth significantly. They make even less sense when one considers that, according to Feeding America, 16 million American children struggle with hunger each year.
Not many school cafeteria workers will turn away a kid who can’t pay for their meals, but some of them do. And sometimes, the laws force them to do even worse.
A Controversial Policy
In 2016, Pennsylvania’s Eighty-Four district adopted a policy requiring school cafeteria workers to throw hot lunches away rather than serve them to children who owed lunch money.
However, some cafeteria workers, like Stacy Koltiska, chose to resign rather than comply with that policy. “As a Christian, I have an issue with this,” said Koltiska, of Canonsburg, Pa. “It’s sinful and shameful is what it is.”
“God is love, and we should love one another and be kind,” Koltiska said. “There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school. To me, this is just wrong.”
In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.