Tenn. lawmaker attempts to stop ‘lunch debt shaming’

School lunch
School lunch
Updated: Feb. 5, 2020 at 10:54 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - One thing that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree on is that no child should go hungry at school, but they disagree about how the debt should be paid.

“Meal debts are not the fault of the child and we should not punish them, ostracize them, belittle them in any way,” said Representative John Ray Clemmons from Nashville.

Clemmons authored House Bill 1589, also known as the “Tennessee Anti-Lunch Shaming Act.” He says the bill does not prevent school districts from collecting debt, but it does stop schools from singling out students.

The bill would prohibit schools from taking away things like graduation or field trips from children whose parents fall behind in paying their lunch debts.

It would also prohibit schools from making students do chores to pay off their debts.

“We don't want children being the tool of a school system to collect debt for lunch,” said State Representative Antonio Parkinson.

Representative Antonio Parkinson supports the original bill, but some Republican lawmakers wanted the bill to have more teeth.

“When are we going to start teaching personal responsibility of the parents that hey there are consequences and repercussions for our actions,” said Rep. Scott Sepicky.

Chairman of the K-12 subcommittee, John Ragan, added an amendment to the bill which includes:

  • Requiring students with jobs to pay off lunch debt
  • Students over the age of 18 be responsible for paying for debt.
  • Gives schools permission to refer parents to the Department of Children and services for investigation of suspected child abuse or neglect for the accumulation of a meal debt.

“To make criminals out of parents for not paying a school lunch debt is to me unbelievable,” said Parkinson.

The current bill would not include students on free or reduced lunch.

We checked local school districts and found Germantown Municipal School District's handbook allows schools to withhold grades, transcripts or diplomas for unpaid debt.

Tipton County Schools replaces students hot meals with a sandwich and milk once student reaches a $10 delinquent bill.

Shelby county schools offers free lunch to all of their students thanks to a federal grant.

Representative Parkinson says if a deal can’t be worked out to remove the amendment than he will be voting against the bill.

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