High school throws away hot meals of students who owe more than $15 in lunch debt

A Minnesota school district that came under fire over a video of cafeteria workers throwing away several students' lunches has issued an apology. 

The footage, recorded Monday at Richfield High School, shows an incident in which as many as 40 students had their hot meals taken from them, tossed in the trash and replaced with a cold option, according to KARE-TV

Each of those students reportedly had an outstanding lunch debt of more than $15. The cafeteria workers who threw away the meals seemed to believe they were enforcing a rule meant to encourage the repaying of those debts, but, according to Richfield Public Schools Superintendent Steven Unowsky, the policy was "inappropriately implemented."

"There are multiple failures we had in this situation and our job is to fix it," Unowsky told KARE. "First and foremost, the way we treated our kids. We should never leave kids with the feeling they had from the experience."

Unowsky said it is against district policy to ever remove a hot lunch from a student's tray, even if they have an outstanding debt. The superintendent added that the students should not have been informed publically that they owed money. 

"We deeply regret our actions today and the embarrassment that it caused several of our students," the district wrote in a statement Monday. "We have met with some of the students involved and apologized to them."

The district noted that students should only be notified of their debts privately — by a counselor or social worker — as to avoid embarrassment. Richfield High School Principal Latanya Daniels echoed Unowsky's disappointment, saying she hoped her school could learn from its mistakes. 

"One of the things we can do is model failure with grace. We absolutely failed in this situation and our team is working to try and rectify mistakes we made," Daniels told KARE.

Many parents and community members also expressed their frustration with the incident, commenting on a Facebook post of the district's apology with their thoughts. 

"I’m disappointed that these kids are being punished for something they have no control of. How embarrassing for them to be shamed to have to eat a different lunch because their parents can’t pay or can’t afford to send food with them," one person wrote. 

"If you are having trouble with the food budget, why didn't you make it public?" another commented. "There are a lot of us that want to help out but we don't when we aren't aware."

School lunch debts have proven been a controversial issue in many other states. In September, a New Jersey school district came under fire after it voted to ban students with outstanding balances from certain extracurricular activities, including prom and assorted field trips. 

That policy, a revision of a previous controversial rule, punished students who owed more than $75.