Poor-Shaming Kids Who Can’t Afford Lunch Mirrors Our Past, Not Our Future

poor shaming
Poor shaming America's school children is never OK

This video, while it seems a little upbeat, gave me chills. This new method of poor-shaming free lunch students is as eerily familiar as it is repulsive. And, it reminds me of an emotionally charged experience in my own life:

An Indelible History Of Shaming

In 1996, I had been president of the Charleston Trident Urban League for three years. It was about 10 a.m and I had been hunkered down with coffee and paperwork since about 7:30 that morning. I hadn’t even taken a break to read the paper when I received a call from the superintendent of the Charleston County Schools.

He asked if I’d read the paper and I responded negatively. He seemed anxious, which was unusual, and asked if I’d read the front page story and call him back. I agreed and picked up my paper and that’s when my day took a turn for the worse.

A young, white kindergarten teacher had sent a note home to a black student’s parents about missing glasses. She wrote the note on the child’s face and our normally quiet community was on the brink of exploding with racial tension. The teacher resigned but not before conservatives used the incident as an opportunity to rally for the return of segregated schools. But the incident has even darker undertones. She stigmatized that child, the ink would eventually wash off, the event and its ramifications never could.

I thought that this was was a horrible, one-time, incident prompted by the teacher’s lack of experience and immaturity, one that would never be repeated. Judging from this video, this traumatizing type of behavior has now gained mainstream popularity. 

Why are schools using such a stigmatizing method to notify parents that it’s time to refill the lunch account? Wouldn’t email be much more efficient? A simple printed note if the family doesn’t have access to email? An experience like having your families “sins” written on your skin in grade school could have a lifelong traumatic effect. Especially if that “sin” is poverty. The fact is that some families can’t put money in that account, no amount of shaming the already hurting child is acceptable but to mark it on their skin is unconscionable.

The fact is that some families can’t put money in that account, no amount of shaming the already hurting child is acceptable but to mark it on their skin is unconscionable.

Some have compared it to tattooing — or branding — tattoos likened to those of cattle, or slaves, or Holocaust victims. The obvious difference, this “tattoo” is temporary. To be clear, just because it can wash off doesn’t remove the emotional damage to the child.

Equally destructive is causing the child without the lunch money to perform janitorial duties in front of their classmates in order to earn the cost of their lunch. While I have no problem with children having to do chores, singling out only those children who cannot afford to pay for their meals is demeaning and dispiriting.

Why is there even a need for this? I understand the need to teach responsibility but that responsibility belongs to the parents, not the child. Please stop punishing the innocent and devise a more effective method for communicating with parents than “branding” your message on their children.

Featured image via MegaPixel.com, Public Domain

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