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Company fires some in Attleboro school lunch incident

Holly Von Seggern apologized Friday for workers who denied lunch to 25 students at Coelho Middle School.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Holly Von Seggern apologized Friday for workers who denied lunch to 25 students at Coelho Middle School.

ATTLEBORO — A New York-based food service company has fired several employees who refused to provide lunch for about 25 Coelho Middle School students this week because their prepaid accounts were too low in funds, creating a national stir, a company official said Friday.

Whitsons School Nutrition said it investigated and found that four workers had violated the school district’s policies by not feeding the students. All of those employees were disciplined and some were fired, an official said.

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Holly Von Seggern, vice president for marketing for Whitsons, declined to say how many people lost their jobs or if those people were management employees or cafeteria workers.

“The results of the investigation concluded that several individuals were acting outside of the district’s policy on handling pending balances on their meal accounts,’’ Von Seggern told reporters Friday afternoon.

She said the company, which has served the Attleboro school district for four years, is continuing to investigate. Whitsons serves about 80 school districts, including between 15 and 20 in Massachusetts, and it has never received complaints about employees refusing to feed students before, according to Von Seggern.

“This was an incident isolated to one school,” she said. “No other schools in Attleboro or any other districts that we serve were affected.”

The Attleboro school district is separately conducting its own internal investigation to determine if any school employees were involved. Some children were denied lunches or had their food thrown in the trash because they did not have cash on hand or had insufficient funds in their prepaid accounts.

Coelho principal Andrew Boles said he heard about the incident in an e-mail from a parent on Tuesday afternoon.

Pia Durkin, Attleboro school superintendent, said the decision to refuse to serve students was not sanctioned and the food service company did the right thing in firing employees. She said she is interviewing school workers who were in the cafeteria at the time to determine why the decision was not challenged and why children were not protected when they were denied lunch.

“They come to school to be warm, to be safe, and to be fed,” she said.

Brenda Furtado, vice chairwoman of the Attleboro School Committee, said she has heard from parents that some students were crying and putting their heads down on tables after being told they could not have lunch. She said any school staff members involved in the refusal to feed children should be fired.

“Whoever participated as an administrator or as staff that allowed this to happen without raising a red flag, absolutely I think that they need to be relieved of their duties,” Furtado said.

A senior representative from Whitsons will attend the School Committee’s meeting Monday night to answer questions, said committee chairman Michael Tyler. He said someone from the company will also meet with the Coelho Parent Teacher Organization on Wednesday.

Attleboro’s public schools have a five-year contract with Whitsons that includes a fixed first year, followed by four years with options to continue the relationship. The schools are still in the first year of that contract and have not yet exercised next year’s option, said Tom Rose, business manager for the district.

The school board has final approval on the contract.

Tyler said the committee will have to consider the recent issue with employees refusing to feed students, but he credited Whitsons for responding swiftly.

“Of course, originally I wasn’t happy one bit, but I will say the degree that they’ve pursued since they’ve become aware of it, the emphasis they put on it has been pretty outstanding and something I expected of them,” he said.

Whitsons plans to retrain all employees in Attleboro on how to work with children and handle problems with accounts, Von Seggern said. The company will also contact parents directly when their prepaid accounts approach zero in the future.

To demonstrate its commitment to the community, Von Seggern said Whitsons will additionally provide free lunch to all Coelho school students for three days next week, starting Wednesday, and will host a barbecue for students and their families at a future date.

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zachary.sampson@globe.com.

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