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Pennsylvania School District Threatens Foster Care Placement Over Lunch Debt

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  • A Pennsylvania school district sent letters to over three dozen parents who had accumulated a school meal debt of $10 or more, warning them to pay the balance or risk having their child placed in foster care.
  • The local social services agency criticized the school for “weaponizing” the foster care system to scare families into paying lunch bills.
  • The president of the district’s board of education said the letters may have been strong, but they worked. 
  • Meanwhile, the vice president of the school board said the letters were not approved by the superintendent and is calling a meeting to discuss the issue, but said future letters will be less threatening.  

Debt Letter Sent 

A Pennsylvania school district faced backlash for sending letters to parents this month, warning them to pay off their children’s school lunch debt otherwise they may face consequences that could result in their child being placed in foster care. 

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter from Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District, read.

“This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.” the letter continued.

Wyoming West Valley School District – The New York Times

The letters were sent out to those with a balance of at least $10 or more.

Outrage Over Foster Care Threat 

Parents in Luzerne County did not respond well to the threat from the school district and the letter soon made national headlines. But the mention of foster care also pulled Luzerne County Children and Youth Services into the issue.

“The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is NOT utilized to scare families into paying school lunch bills,” Joanne Van Saun, director of the local agency, wrote in a letter to the district’s superintendent. 

“We exist to protect and preserve families. The only time a child is taken out is when they cannot be maintained safely in their home,” she later told CNN. “Our agency has helped many children and families with paying rent and buying clothes. We know children do better when they’re with their families.”

Van Saun added that she felt “blindsided” by the district’s letter, especially since the district and the agency have had a good relationship with one another in the past. “The way they handled it was totally inappropriate, unnecessary and could’ve easily been resolved through so many different avenues.” she said. 

C. David Pedri, Luzerne county manager, also wrote the district a letter complaining about the notice.“It weaponizes Luzerne County’s foster care system,” Pedri said on Saturday in a statement to The New York Times. “It’s exactly what we’re not here to do. The foster care system is here to help kids who are abused.”

“Taking a kid out of a house is one of the most extreme things that a foster care system has ever tried to do,” he added. “So you don’t do it lightly. We would never take a kid out of a house for failing to pay a school lunch bill.”

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey even called the letters “callous,” adding, “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically.” 

Mixed Responses From Officials

According to CNN, Wyoming Valley’s Cafeteria Purchase Charging and Insufficient Funds Policy says nothing about parents potentially going to court or losing their children. However, it does state that families with a student account that reaches negative $10 or more will receive “an automated call every Friday” until the remaining balance is paid. 

After being identified by WNEP as the person who penned the letter, Joseph Muth told the news station that it was a “last resort” effort to deal with the roughly $22,000 in debt that the district had accumulated. 

Joseph Mazur, the president of the district’s board of education, told NPR that the district had tried contacting parents by mail, email, robocalls, and personal calls, before the notice, but nothing worked. 

Mazur then defended the letter saying: “I think you have to pay your bills. I mean, I’ve been paying my bills all my life. So has everybody else. I mean sometimes you have to do without something for yourself if you want to raise your kids and see that they’re taken care of.”

“We are in the process of trying to save money wherever we can. We have laid off some employees. We have reduced some of our curriculum. And we’re looking anywhere we can save,” Mazur said. “I don’t care if it’s $1,000 or $20,000.”

Mazur did note that all students in the district received a meal. “Every poor kid got a meal,” Mazur said. “If the Board of Directors was mean and cruel they’d just honestly say, ‘stop the lunches,’ but we didn’t.”

“Was the letter a little strong? Maybe yes,” Mazur added. “But it did work, because they’re paid now.”

However, David Usavage, vice president of the school board, told the Times on Saturday that he received about six phone calls complaining about the letter. He also added that when he first read the notice, he thought it was a “joke.”

The letter “was not approved by anyone,” Usavage said. “We have a policy that says everything should go through the superintendent.”

It is not uncommon for the district to mail letters to parents, asking them to pay debts, but the language has always been “softer,” he said.

Usavage explained that the notice was written by Muth and the district’s lawyer, Charles R Coslett. Usavage said Muth has since apologized over the notice, but did not release any information about potential consequences for the two. 

Usavage also provided the Times with more information about the district’s debt, saying that the district, which is made up of seven different schools, serves school meals that cost between $1 to $2.70 to about 5,000 children.

“We have never denied anyone because they don’t have money,” he said. “We would never, ever allow a child to go hungry.”

However, Usavage said that 960 students had accumulated a debt of five cents up to $9.99. Parents of 40 children owed $10 or more and parents of four students owed more than $440. 

For now, Usavage said he would call a special meeting with the school board to discuss the issue, but said future letters will be less threatening.

“I don’t want the people who live in the Wyoming Valley West School District to think we are so classless as to send out a letter threatening parents,” he said. “I can assure you we will not take one child or one parent to any kind of court to get back the money.”

For the coming school year, the district will qualify for funding to provide free lunches to all students. regardless of their family’s financial need. 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (NPR)

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Supreme Court Rejects Third Challenge to Affordable Care Act

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In the 7-2 decision, the justices argued the Republican-led states that brought the challenge forth failed to show how the law caused injury and thus had no legal standing.


SCOTUS Issues Opinion on Individual Mandate

The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the third Republican-led challenge to the Affordable Care Act to ever reach the high court.

The issue at hand was the provision of the law, commonly known as Obamacare, that requires people to either purchase health insurance or pay a tax penalty: the so-called individual mandate. 

The individual mandate has been one of the most controversial parts of Obamacare and it has already been before SCOTUS, which upheld the provision in 2012 on the grounds that it amounted to a tax and thus fell under Congress’ taxing power.

However, as part of the sweeping 2017 tax bill, the Republican-held Congress set the penalty for not having health care to $0. As a result, a group of Republican-led states headed by Texas sued, arguing that because their GOP colleagues made the mandate zero dollars, it no longer raised revenues and could not be considered a tax, thus making it unconstitutional.

The states also argued that the individual mandate is such a key part of Obamacare that it could not be separated without getting rid of the entire law.

The Supreme Court, however, rejected that argument in a 7-2 decision, with Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting.

Majority Opinion Finds No Injury

In the majority decision, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the Republican states had no grounds to sue because they could not show how they were harmed by their own colleagues zeroing out the penalty.

“There is no possible government action that is causally connected to the plaintiffs’ injury — the costs of purchasing health insurance,” he wrote, adding that the states “have not demonstrated that an unenforceable mandate will cause their residents to enroll in valuable benefits programs that they would otherwise forgo.”

Breyer also argued that because of this, the court did not need to decide on the broader issue of whether the 2017 tax bill rendered the individual mandate unconstitutional and if that provision could be separated from the ACA.

The highly anticipated decision will officially keep Obamacare as the law of the land, ensuring that the roughly 20 million people enrolled still have health insurance. While there may be other challenges to the law hard-fought by conservatives, this latest ruling sends a key signal about the limits of the Republican efforts to achieve their agenda through the high court, even with the strong conservative majority.

While the court has now struck down challenges to Obamacare three times, Thursday’s decision marked the largest margin of victory of all three challenges to the ACA.

For now, the ACA appears to be fairly insulated from legal challenges, though it will still likely face more. In a tweet following the SCOTUS decision, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) vowed to keep fighting Obamacare, adding that the individual mandate “was unconstitutional when it was enacted and it is still unconstitutional.”

See what others are saying: (Axios) (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press

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Utah Student With Down Syndrome Left Out of Cheer Squad’s Yearbook Photo

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The move marks the second time in three years that Morgyn Arnold has been left out of the school’s yearbook. Two years ago, it failed to include her in the class list.


Two Photos Take, One Without Morgyn Arnold

A Utah school has apologized after a student with Down syndrome at Shoreline Junior High was excluded from her cheerleading squad’s yearbook photo.

The squad took two official team portraits this year. The first included 14-year-old Morgyn Arnold, who had been working as the team manager but attended practices and cheered alongside her other teammates at every home game. The second imsgr did not include her and ended up being the photo the school used across social media and in its yearbook.

Arnold was heartbroken by the decision and her family believed it was made because of her disability.

In social media posts about the move, Arnold’s sister, Jordyn Poll, noted that Arnold “spent hours learning dances, showing up to games, and cheering on her school and friends but was left out.”

“I hope that no one ever has to experience the heartbreak that comes when the person they love comes home from school devastated and shows them that they’re not in the picture with their team,” she continued.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Poll also said this marked the second time in three years that her sister has been left out of the yearbook. Two years ago, the school failed to include her in the class list.

School Apologizes After Backlash

After Poll’s public call out picked up attention, the school said it was “deeply saddened by the mistake.”

Apologies have been made to the family, and we sincerely apologize to all others impacted by this error,” it added. “We are continuing to look at what has occurred, and to improve our practice.”

The district issued a similar statement, claiming it was looking into why this occurred to make sure it doesn’t happen again. 

But Poll said this isn’t the same response her family received when they initially contacted school administrators. Instead, Poll told the Tribune that an employee at the school “blatantly said they didn’t know what we were expecting of them and there was nothing they could do.”

The school has since contacted them again “to make the situation right.”

Meanwhile, Poll stressed that her sister’s teammates had nothing to do with the decision, defending the girls as amazing friends who have done everything to make Arnold feel included.

In fact, they too were disappointed to see that she was not featured in the image or even named as a member of the team in the yearbook.

Arnold’s family decided to speak up about the issue so that this school and others can improve the ways they interact with and include students with disabilities. Different forms of exclusion happen at schools across the country, and this story has prompted other parents of kids with disabilities to share similar experiences.

A staff attorney at the Disability Law Center of Utah told the Tribune that it receives about 4,000 complaints each year. Some complaints stemmed from students with disabilities being separated into other classrooms without their peers. Others include name-calling or not allowing students on a team or in a club.

Thankfully, Arnold has not let this situation bring her down. According to her family, she has already forgiven everyone involved and plans to continue cheering alongside her friends.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Salt Lake Tribune) (NBC News)

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Ex-Shake Shack Manager Sues NYPD Over False Milkshake Poisoning Allegations

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The former manager is accusing the police department and its unions of false arrest and defamation relating to the viral incident last summer.


Former Shack Shack Employee Sues One Year Later

The former manager of a New York City Shake Shack restaurant who was falsely accused of poisoning several law enforcement officers’ milkshakes last summer is now suing the city’s police department, its unions, and individual officers.

On June 15, 2020,  three officers monitoring the anti-racism protests in Lower Manhattan entered a Shake Shack location for milkshakes, which they later claimed had been poisoned, likely by bleach.

By the end of the night, investigators determined that no one had tampered with the drinks, and the New York Police Department declared there was “no criminality.” Police later said the officers were possibly sickened by a cleaning solution that had not been properly cleaned out of the machines, though Shake Shack claimed it did not find leaks of any foreign substances.

Before that lack of criminality was determined and while the inquiry was ongoing, the police unions and their leaders accused the Shake Shack workers of launching a targeted attack in a series of tweets, which were then shared and discussed widely on social media by prominent conservatives.

The resulting outcome was widespread condemnation and deleting of tweets. Now, almost exactly a year later, the former manager of that Shake Shack, Marcus Gilliam, has accused the parties involved of false arrest and defamation.

According to his lawsuit, the three officers — who are referred to as Officers Strawberry Shake, Vanilla Shake, and Cherry Shake — ordered the drinks via mobile app, meaning the employees could not have known cops placed the order.

Additionally, the documents state the order was “already packaged and waiting for pickup” when the officers arrived, making it impossible for Gilliam or any other employee to have added anything to the shakes when they saw the officers come in to claim them.

After the officers complained about the taste of the milkshakes and threw them out, Gilliam said he apologized and offered them vouchers for free replacements, which they accepted. However, they still told their Sergeant that Gilliam had put a “toxic substance” in their drinks, even though they had disposed of any evidence.

Claims of Wrongful Detainment 

The court documents go on to say that another officer arrived and detained the employees, who cooperated with the officer’s investigation. That process included interviews, searches, and tests, which showed no evidence of bleach or other toxins.

The NYPD also conducted a review of security footage, which independently determined that none of the employees put any kind of toxic substances in the officer’s drinks.

Despite all that, and even after the three officers were released from a hospital “without ever showing symptoms,” the NYPD still arrested Gilliam and brought him into the precinct, the suit stated.

Once in the precinct, the former manager was allegedly “interrogated for approximately one to two hours” and detained for around three hours, putting the total time he was detained by police in both the store and the precinct at approximately five to six hours.

Gilliam’s attorney is arguing that the officers had no probable cause or warrants for his arrest. An arrest that the lawsuit says caused him to suffer “emotional and psychological damages and damage to his reputation,” as well as economic damages from legal fees and missed wages, for which he is seeking both punitive and monetary damages.

None of the defendants have responded to requests for comment from the media.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (NBC News)

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