advice from a fake consultant

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On Teaching Debt Collection To Kids, Or, Here’s The Outrage Of The Week

There have been efforts in the past to teach “life skills” to students in the public schools, and of course among those skills is the lesson of financial responsibility.

I can imagine that these classes, especially for a student forced to take them first thing in the morning, can be like a daily session of discussing Hawley/Smoot in Ben Stein’s high school economics class. So, so dull that they make you nod your head in….zzzzzzz…

For some school districts, however, a more direct method of financial education has been employed-a method that will be our outrage of the week.

There is no question that the public schools are, financially speaking, stuck between a rock and a hard place; and just like a person living on a fixed income, every lost dollar hurts.

One form of “lost dollars” has historically been the money owed by parents for school lunches that are essentially provided “on credit”. Basically what happens is a kid might forget his lunch money that day, or a parent might have bounced a check for the prepayment of meals for the next month, and the school covers the money until they can collect the debt.

Now, debt collection is a highly regulated business. Federal law says you can’t just go around threatening violence to collect a debt, for example. State laws are even more restrictive: California says you can’t put a fake name on an envelope containing a collection notice or force a debtor to accept collect calls; New York says collectors are prohibited from:

“…communicating with you in a manner which simulates a judicial process or which gives the appearance of being authorized or issued by a governmental entity…”

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that schools would look for ever-more-creative ways to collect debts; but even considering all that I found myself shocked by this LA Times article entitled: “On school menus: cheese sandwiches, parental debt”.

The article describes the Chula Vista (a suburb of San Diego, California) Elementary School District’s “alternate meals” plan, which works something like this:

If a parent owes the district more than $5 in meal money, the district will send a letter home, put a sticker on the child’s hand, and eventually, hire collection agencies.

If all that fails, the district will basically…repossess lunch.
How is that possible, you ask?

Picture two second-graders in the cafeteria line. As they get to the yummy pizza, the first little girl gets her slice of pepperoni. But not the second girl.

She gets a cheese sandwich.

That’s right-this school district, and numerous others nationwide, have special school lunch “options” for those students who have parents that owe money-and in Calloway County, Kentucky, it only takes $3.00.

Life’s tough enough for a kid in school: the pressure to have the right clothes and shoes, the need to fit in, and above all-making sure you avoid being humiliated in front of everyone. Here’s a piece of the LA Times article:

“…The cheese sandwich, they say, has become a badge of shame for the children, who get teased about it by their classmates. One student cried when her macaroni and cheese was replaced with a sandwich. A little girl hid in a restroom to avoid getting one. Many of the sandwiches end up untouched or tossed whole in the garbage. Sometimes kids pound them to pieces…

…A year ago, he said, a cafeteria worker took away Christopher's pizza and forced him in front of his friends to pick up a sandwich instead. A similar incident occurred when Christopher was in the third grade. "The kid was humiliated," said his father, who added that he did not realize he owed money, $7.50...

…One Chula Vista third-grader, whose mother requested that the girl not be identified, said students sometimes ostracize the cheese sandwich kids, switching tables and talking behind their backs. "Some kids say they're not the kind of kids you want to hang out with," she said.”

There are a bunch of other reasons why this is a bad idea, and an explanation of why the tactic is popular below; but first, a required disclosure.

Those of you who are regular readers will recall two stories that I recently did about The Yes Men, and you may already be suspicious that this is the third.

If this were a missile silo, I’d be telling you: “This is not a drill”.
I have no surprise twist coming.
This is a real story.

Now back to the news…

When we left off, we had discussed the stigma that I contend attaches to a kid when they get the “special” sandwich (or the peanut butter and crackers, or whatever) and everybody else gets the pizza; but maybe I’m just overreacting in my assessment.

To be sure I’m not; let’s examine how others might view the practice.

Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services offers online information for foster parents, including a discussion of disipline and punishment that offers these comments:

…”Punishment is defined as imposing external controls by force on children to change their behavior. It includes…Imposing suffering, for example by withholding food…Personal or emotional attacks like name-calling, ridicule, and insults…Many forms of punishment are against the law.”… (emphasis in original)

…”It's not hard to understand why parents sometimes want to use punishment. There are many reasons, including…

The misbehavior often stops immediately
Children often show remorse during punishment
The parent gets to blow off steam
The parent feels in control
The parent hasn't let the children "get away with it"
The parent was raised that way”

The Centers for Disease Control offers a score card to help elementary schools measure their “School Health Index”; and items 5 and 6 on the list of score card items are-you guessed it!-lunchroom related:

“N.1. Prohibit using food as reward or punishment
N.2. Fundraising efforts supportive of healthy eating”

The State of Wisconsin has intervened to prevent the practice of withholding food as a form of discipline in school settings, as reported by the Winona Daily News:

“The state has ordered a military-style private school to stop punishing students by serving them smaller lunches and is withholding money for food programs until the problems are corrected…

…The state has halted its share of the money for lunch and breakfast for low-income students until the La Brew Troopers Military University School stops withholding food as punishment, Helen Pesche, child nutrition program consultant for the state, wrote in a letter to the school dated May 21…

… The letter said that inspections at the school found students were sometimes punished by being served lunch without either meat or a substitute and a vegetable and fruit…

… A DPI report said one day when inspectors visited the school, 24 students were served lunches that did not include a sloppy joe on a bun and canned fruit, like their peers ate. Instead, the report said the children were given a slice of white bread, half a cup of mashed potatoes and a half pint of milk…

…Withholding food is unacceptable for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted program that subsidizes school food, the report said…”

The State of Illinois also frowns on this type of “food punishment”.
Consider this policy goal from's “evaluation tool” for Illinois schools:

“School personnel are encouraged to use nonfood incentives or rewards with students…and do not withhold food from students as punishment.”

Is this practice intended as punishment?
Here’s another quote from the LA Times, discussing what happened when peanut-butter-and-jelly was the “special sandwich”:

"It seemed to be one of the children's very favorite meals, so that wasn't productive," said Beth Taylor, nutrition director for the Johnston County School District in North Carolina, where such sandwiches were tried. Taylor said switching to vegetable and fruit trays changed everything. Among last week's menu items for students with lunch balances: crunchy cole slaw, fried squash and steamed cabbage. "The outstanding debt has been reduced to nothing," she said.”

Did everybody catch that admission by Ms. Taylor?
It was serving healthy food that turned the problem around.

Who thinks these kids will grow up to have eating disorders?
Who thinks opening a 24-Hour Fitness in Johnson County, North Carolina will pay off big one day?
Who thinks with policies like this in place buying stock in “Stroke, Inc.” or “Heart Attack & Co.” would be a great investment, if it were available?

With all that in mind, why would a school district pursue such a practice?
Because humiliation works.

The LA Times article reports that Chula Vista reduced its debt in this category by more than $230,000 from 2004 to 2006. Of 18,000 meals served by the District daily, up to 400 are of the “special sandwich” variety.

In its defense, Chula Vista points out that the “unlimited salad bar” is available to all students, but I suspect the salad bar does not reduce the impact of the “cheese sandwich equivalent” on the little kid to whom it is served.

Before closing, I want to offer one more learned opinion regarding the "food as punishment" idea. A learned Opinion that comes to us from the Unitred States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (the case originated in the eastern District of Wisconsin).

The Court has been called upon to offer an opinion as to whether food substitution is an acceptable form of punishment for prisoners in Wisconsin’s Secure Program Facility at Boscobel (a Maximum Security Facility, previously a Supemax). Food substitution means a “nutri-loaf” will be the only food offered during the period of a prisoner’s punishment, and the court found that the punishment was a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”.

To put all this in perspective, we have on the one hand a highly effective policy borne out of the school districts’ need to collect money; and on the other hand the opinions of Washington State’s foster parent educators, the Centers for Disease Control, the courts of Wisconsin and the nutrition educators of Illinois who all feel this is a terrible idea.

If all that wasn’t enough, we have a United States Court of Appeals that won’t even allow this type of punishment in a Maximum Security prison.

As we all know, kids have a ton of barriers in their way when they are being educated, and there is no good reason to create another one when the punished child didn’t even commit the “crime”. Just because…

…The misbehavior often stops immediately
Children often show remorse during punishment
The district gets to blow off steam
The district feels in control
The district hasn't let the children "get away with it"
The district was raised that way…

…doesn’t mean it’s OK to abuse kids who have little, if any, control over the “bad” behavior of their parents.


Mike P. said...

This is interesting

I fount other articles on the net that may spark your interest...
Allied Interstate is one of the famous collection agencies. As i was doing research on it I found very interesting information about Allied Interstate. These are consumers that have suffered from Collection Agency's practices...

fake consultant said...

collection agencies do seem to be an area of interest to many, and there is likely a pretty good story to be written.

it would be particularly interesting to do a "compare and contrast" between school dostrict practices and debt collection agency's practices.

ex-engineer said...

I grew up on welfare, I attended Cincinnati Public schools. They had two lines in the cafeteria, one for those with money, one for the welfare kids. I learned very quickly to skip lunch. As I didn't have breakfast my first(and only) meal of the day was at 6:00 pm. I was placed in learning disabled classes and failed the third grade. I weighed in at 45 pounds 3'8" when I started high school. Then I got a work permit and started working at 15. I had my own money and could buy my own food, suddenly I started to grow and my grades improved until I finished near the top of my class with almost a full year of college AP classes. I got a near perfect SAT and I grew to 6'1" I would have probably been 6'3" if I hadn't starved my way through school. Restricting kids food and ostracizing them is not only stupid, it's criminal.

fake consultant said...

that's sad and kind of nice at the same time.

i once read about a marine colonel who said heroes are created when someone gets into something they can't get out of, and the incredible, against all odds effort they put forth to get out of the situation makes them a hero.

he said he wanted to have no heroes-just survivors who do their jobs safely.

your story reminds me of that-i find your success inspiring, but i wish you had never been forced to become a hero in the first place.