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Attleboro school leaders say they received threats over denial of lunches

As Attleboro officials investigate why dozens of middle-school pupils were denied lunch last week, the school super­intendent is pleading for an end to a barrage of threats against her, the school principal, and their families.

“This has to stop,” Superintendent Pia Durkin said Wednesday at an emotional meeting with parents, according to the Attleboro Sun Chronicle.

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An angry outpouring of e-mails, phone calls, and letters have included threats of physical harm, Durkin said. She did not elaborate or describe the reasons behind the threats, according to the Sun Chronicle.

Neither Durkin nor Andrew Boles, the Coelho Middle School principal, responded to requests for comment Thursday.

A firestorm of criticism has engulfed the Attleboro schools since April 2, when as many as 40 Coelho pupils were denied lunch or had their meals thrown in the trash because they could not pay at the ­cashier or because their prepaid accounts were overdrawn.

Many embarrassed students, some of whom owed less than $1, broke down into tears, Coelho pupils and parents said.

School Committee member Frances Zito said Thursday that threats have no place in the ­debate. “I was kind of shocked that anyone would be calling or threatening the superintendent or the principal, because I don’t think they had any control over this,” Zito said.

Officials from the schools and its food-service provider, Whitsons Culinary Group, quickly apologized last week for what they called an unapproved and isolated incident. They said no student should have been denied food.

But some parents question whether school staff approved the cafeteria workers’ action or failed to stop what was occuring. Kevin Lamoureux, father of two Coelho pupils, said his children told him an assistant principal announced that students would not be able to eat if they could not pay.

“We received a letter that said one thing — we weren’t aware of the situation — and then the kids said the assistant principal was making an announce­ment,” Lamoureux said. “To me, it sounds like they’re changing the story. They tried to cover their own tails, but obviously the truth is going to come out.”

At the Wednesday meeting, according to the Sun Chronicle, Durkin asked parents not to prejudge or implicate any school officials while the investigation proceeds.

“Let me do my job,” Durkin said. “I will inform the School Committee and the public as far as I legally can” when the inquiry is finished.

Whitsons, which employs the cafeteria workers and is conducting a separate investigation, has fired two workers and suspended two others pending completion of its ­inquiry. Employees who were disciplined range from management to a “food-service worker,” said Holly Von Seggern, a ­Whitsons spokeswoman.

Von Seggern did not ­respond directly when asked whether a worker would be disciplined for following an order from a school official.

In the future, Whitsons said, every student whose account is overdrawn will be given a full meal. Boles said last week that notices of overdrawn accounts had been sent home with students every Wednesday, but some parents said they had not received regular updates.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@
globe.com
.

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