Image: AP

Joseph Muth, a director of federal programs for Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West School District, sent a letter to approximately 1,000 parents last week threatening that the school district would report them to ‘Dependency Court’ if they did not immediately pay their children’s outstanding school lunch balance.

Per the Washington Post, Muth’s letter read:

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the 200-word letter read. “This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

The letter, versions of which were obtained by various news organizations including the Post and NBC News, was swiftly denounced by other school district board members and officials in Luzerne County, which runs the foster care program. Joanne Von Saun, Luzerne’s Director of Children and Youth Services, told ABC affiliate WNEP that the threat was “unacceptable... This causes more antagonism so that when we’re knocking on the doors, families see us more as a threat instead of an agency that will provide support and lend assistance.” She added that she viewed it as “terrorizing children and families.”

On Friday, Muth backtracked, telling ABC News that it was a “mistake” to send the threatening letter, but he declined to disclose how the letter initially came about. But Charles Coslett, a school board member who has reportedly “forced 50 families to dependency court for truancy where parents risked having their children placed in foster care because their kids kept on skipping school,” stood by the letter. Coslett told ABC News:

“It merely lays out the options available to the district if people continue to ignore their parental responsibility and the nutritional needs of their minor sons and daughters... These parents need to look in the mirror...This matter isn’t going away merely because delinquent debtors make Valley West the bad guy.”

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The school district is trying to collect a little over $22,000 in lunch debt, in a county where 14 percent of families live below the poverty line and where the school district “qualifies for enough money to provide free lunches to all students for the upcoming school year,” per WNEP. And while Wyoming Valley West School Board Vice President David Usavage, who condemned the letter, told WNEP that similar letters wouldn’t be leveraged in the future, this type of threat is part of a larger national trend in which schools and school districts adopt practices that effectively shame and punish children and parents who can’t afford to pay for lunch. In May, Nadra Nittle wrote an investigation for Eater about this practice, nothing that after the “Great Recession, “a number of school districts found themselves in a financial crunch and began using punitive measures to settle meal debt.”

Nittle cited incidents in Rhode Island, Minnesota, Colorado, and Alabama, among others, in which students were publicly shamed for their debt and withheld hot lunches or even academic honors, and chronicled the ways this type of punishment can effect children’s self-esteem and ability to perform well in school overall. Nittle also wrote about the ways school districts punish parents with delinquent lunch bills, sending them to debt collectors among other family-upending consequences. (It’s a comprehensive, illuminating, infuriating piece—read it in full here.)

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As for the Wyoming Valley West School District’s Coslett, who is also representing the board as their lawyer, it seems like shaming might just be part of the calculus. Referring to a letter received by a mother who owed $75, he told WNEP, “Where did that $75 go? Is it going to cigarettes? Is it going to alcohol? We don’t know. That’s right, we don’t know that,” he said.