Elementary school snatches back lunches from kids who had account deficits

(CNN) -- The cafeteria manager and her supervisor at a Utah elementary school have been placed on paid leave while officials investigate how dozens of children had their lunch trays pulled from their hands this week, outraging parents.

"Once our investigation is complete, we will post an update for all concerned," school district spokesman Jason R. Olsen said Friday.

The trays were grabbed from pupils at Uintah Elementary School on Tuesday -- before they could even take a bite -- because they had negative balances in the accounts used to pay for lunches, school officials acknowledged.

They admit the situation should have been handled differently.

Instead of regular lunches, the students were given fruit and milk.

"We don't ever let kids go without any food entirely," Olsen told CNN affiliate KSL.

Mother Erica Lukes told KSL she was "blindsided" when her daughter, a fifth-grader, described what a school district official told her: "You don't have any money in your account, so you can't get lunch."

"There were a lot of tears," Lukes said, "and it was pretty upsetting for them."

Her daughter, Sophia Isom, recounted how she was met by a district nutrition manager who confiscated her school lunch and threw it away, the station reported.

"So she took my lunch away and said, 'Go get a milk,' " the daughter told the affiliate. "I came back and asked, 'What's going on?' Then she handed me an orange. She said, 'You don't have any money in your account, so you can't get lunch.' "

Between 50 and 70 of the school's 550 students had accounts in arrears, Olsen told KSL.

The district said it started notifying parents about negative account balances Monday. But Lukes said she and other parents were never told about the problem.

"Even if they did try to send the word out, you still don't do that to a child," she told KSL. "You don't take a lunch out of their hands."

On Thursday, two state senators visited the school and ate lunch with pupils to demonstrate that no child should go hungry in school, KSL reported.

State Sen. Todd Weiler, a Republican, posted a tweet about his visit: "Best nugget of the Uintah school lunch story: 5th grader were particularly horrified that food was being discarded in 'pizza day'!"

Weiler picked up the $3 lunch tab of state Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat, who joined him. Dabakis said he and Weiler will meet with Senate leaders about legislation to ensure that students are fed in schools, the affiliate reported.

Weiler added that the school employees responsible for the controversy should be fired because they "used (their) power to humiliate and embarrass children," KSL reported.

School officials say they made a mistake.

"This situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner. We apologize," the Salt Lake City School District said on its Facebook page.

Officials are investigating whether guidelines about notifying parents were followed, the district said.

"We understand the feelings of upset parents and students who say this was an embarrassing and humiliating situation," the district said. "We again apologize and commit to working with parents in rectifying this situation and to ensuring students are never treated in this manner again."

Another post on the school district's Facebook page talks about the importance of ending child hunger.