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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Did an Attleboro administrator order students to go without lunch?

Globe staff illustration

It’s hard to believe a crew of humble cafeteria workers decided on their own to deny lunch to several dozen Attleboro students.

And, there’s good reason for doubt, according to Kevin Lamoureux, the father of two Coelho Middle School students.

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On the day the school went Oliver Twist, his children came home and told him the assistant principal announced that anyone who didn’t have money to buy lunch wouldn’t be eating. Up to 40 kids didn’t get food that day and the meals they couldn’t pay for were thrown in the trash.

The horror became national news. Heads had to roll, so four cafeteria workers were fired.

Given what his children reported, the outcome didn’t seem fair to Lamoureux. He was hesitant to get involved, but on Monday night, he put himself and his children on the line and told the local school committee he believes there’s a cover-up.

“You’re protecting your own and I don’t like it,” he said, according to the Attleboro Patch.

Lamoureux decided to speak up, he told me the next day, because the firing of cafeteria workers “really bugged me.” He believes that someone with higher authority than the lunch staff made the decision to withhold food; yet “these four cafeteria workers are suffering the consequences. Now, their families are going to struggle and they don’t have that income.”

His children were not among the lunch-deprived. Maybe that’s why Lamoureux, a 41-year-old property manager, comes across as a voice of reason in a sea of over-hyped outrage.

He thinks it’s one of those teachable moments. No one should be fired. Instead, everyone — school administrators, the food service managers, and the workers — should apologize. The school system should implement a district-wide policy so there is no unhappy encore; and workers should be better trained to handle a situation when children come to school without lunch money, or have lunch accounts in arrears.

For those who insist the guilty must be punished, Lamoureux suggests requiring the wrongdoers to volunteer at a local food pantry. As he sees it, “There was no need for people to lose their jobs. Nobody died. Nobody was severely hurt. This was an unfortunate incident, not a tragic one.”

A few other parents expressed similar sentiments at the meeting on Monday. According to Lamoureux, one mother wrote a letter noting that if the same standards were applied to her, she would be fired as a parent for forgetting to send lunch to school along with her child.

But there’s little room for mercy once angry parents feed a major media uproar. As School Committee Chairman Mike Tyler observed at the meeting, “The spotlight has been shined in a really negative way on the most unfortunate situation.”

Robert Whitcomb, chairman and CEO of Whitsons Culinary Group, the company that holds the food service contract with Attleboro public schools, called the incident “completely inexcusable.” The company insists the cafeteria workers “were acting on their own.’’

Attleboro school officials are still investigating the case of the lunch-deprived children. But this isn’t Watergate. You don’t need Deep Throat to tell you what school administrators knew and when they knew it. It can’t be that hard to figure out who and what prompted the decision to keep kids from their lunch. To find out if the assistant principal made the announcement some children said they heard — just ask.

Meanwhile, call me Miss Hannigan — the orphan tormentor in “Annie” — but the hysteria seems out of proportion to the actual harm and the resolution feels very unjust. No mother would belittle the embarrassment of middle-school kids who were told they couldn’t get lunch, or the discomfort of grumbling stomachs. But if my children told me they didn’t eat because they didn’t have money, the first person I would blame would be their mother. Forgetting to give lunch money for one day or a few falls into the realm of acceptable possibility. But barring some serious financial circumstances, running up a tab in the school cafeteria is irresponsible.

What’s also lacking in Attleboro is a sensible, uniform policy that everyone understands. School administrators and the food service company are accountable for that.

The buck stops with them, not with the lunch ladies.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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