The public outrage we have seen boil over regarding the Warwick School Department’s policy on trying to recoup about $77,000 in owed school lunch debt is a perfect example of why social media is the very antithesis of informed, practical discourse – and why it can actually lead to people being less knowledgeable than they would be if it did not exist at all.
We must first start by pointing out that this issue of school lunch debt – and the policy enacted to fight it – has not just all of a sudden happened upon the people of Warwick. This policy change went through two school committee meetings and was approved unanimously, with discussion both times, and it was posted and written about by this publication.
But it wasn’t until emails went out to parents that the policy would be beginning in earnest, and a story from one of our competitors ran earlier this week – with a somewhat misleading headline describing indebted students getting “cold sandwiches” that seemed intent on generating outrage – that people started paying attention.
Parents and opinionated community members took to Facebook, where misinformed opinions and emotional reactions germinate, grow, multiply and spread like a field of dandelions in the May sunshine.
Public involvement in the community, and interest in the goings-on within it, is a good thing – in fact, we have written multiple editorials in the past decrying the public’s general low interest in local matters. However, spreading misinformation or knee-jerk, emotion-based statements devoid of proper context or knowledge of the facts at hand does far more damage than doing nothing at all.
In this case, Facebook users spread misconstrued versions of the truth or outright falsehoods regarding the school debt collection policy. They said that the district turned down a donation that would cover the entirety of the debt, when in reality it was a $4,000 donation that was turned down for issues regarding equity and confidentiality – and they are reportedly working with their lawyers to find out how they can accept the offer.
There were comments about indebted students having lunch trays ripped from their hands, despite the fact that the lunch restriction portion of the policy doesn’t begin until this upcoming Monday. They characterized getting a sun butter and jelly sandwich as being a “shame tactic,” as if it isn’t a normal menu option that students without any lunch debt purchase every single day. They also leave out that the meal comes with a full complement of fruit, veggies, bread and a milk, like every other lunch.
The misinformation is at its worst, however, when it comes to the nature of what school lunch debt actually means.
The overwhelming reaction from those on Facebook has been decrying the school department for cracking down on poor kids and their families. Nearly 400 people have found it necessary to donate over $11,600 within a single day to an online campaign set to eradicate the debt and help these struggling families.
Unfortunately, the truth isn’t so cut and dry. The district isn’t viciously pursuing poor families. Not only have they expressed multiple times that any family struggling will never be pursued for money if they simply call and indicate their financial troubles to the school, parents get as many as four written letters warning them about their debt situation before their student has their lunch restricted.
Even more important is the fact that a vast majority of families who owe lunch money debt can seemingly afford it, but they simply haven’t paid. According to Superintendent Philip Thornton, 72 percent of the outstanding lunch debt, nearly three in four kids who owe money, are kids that are not a part of the free and reduced lunch program.
In fairness, some of these families likely qualify for the program but are perhaps unaware. So, if anything, this policy is a useful tool to help struggling families realize that they need to make a phone call and get available assistance that is utilized by 34 percent of students in the district.
All told, it is very easy to get upset thinking about things at a surface level. Sending lawyers to threaten families with the possibility of being taken to small claims court over owing money for school lunches – a provision that is free in many other first-world countries, which is a whole other issue for another day – certainly seems abhorrent. But the facts matter too, and if nearly three-fourths of kids racking up lunch debt in the system can actually afford to pay it, then that is a huge problem the schools are rightfully trying to address.
Which brings up the last point – that the policy is working. Over $14,000 of the $77,000 in total debt has been successfully collected in just two days since those emails went out warning parents that the schools were actually going to start enforcing the policy. Does this indicate that people are unable to pay? Or does it say that people have simply been taking advantage of the system? Perhaps they fall in the middle and haven’t been paying attention to it at all.
Hopefully they’re paying attention now, just not to Facebook comments.