Students at the public Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey say names of seniors were called out in an assembly and presented with a choice on Wednesday morning: Pay for your school lunches or don’t get a diploma.
“Exactly like a roll call,” Fair Lawn senior Benny Koval told The Daily Beast. “And for (overdue library) books, the students called had to actually walk over to the stage and pick something up.”
A picture taken by Koval on Wednesday morning from within the assembly, which was otherwise about graduation prep, quickly went viral on Twitter, where users contended the call-out amounted to a particularly public form of lunch shaming. Some commenters even offered to give the school cash to pay off lunch debts.
“My high school's having a name & shame for students who owe lunch and/or book money,” Koval’s tweet read. “Admins say they won't graduate unless debts are covered.”
Lunch shaming, or formal and public pronouncements pointing out students who received school lunch but couldn’t pay for it, has received increased scrutiny in news outlets and social media since an Alabama school stamped the words “I need lunch money” onto the arm of an 8-year-old boy last year. When a Phoenix area school did the same to a second grader in April, a BuzzFeed article outlining the case went viral.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed first-of-its-kind legislation in March that banned the practice in the state.
“If their parents have debt in the lunchroom, then that is not something that they have control over, and I don't know why we're punishing them,” the bill’s sponsor, Michael Padilla, told NPR.
At Fair Lawn, Koval said, students were told “your diploma will be withheld from you” and “you won’t be able to walk” in the upcoming June 22 graduation ceremony if they didn’t pay up.
“Many topics were skimmed over, such as graduation practice, yearbook distribution and, of course, the unpaid debts,” said Koval. “The first few names provoked a lot of laughter and name-calling.”
Another student at the assembly, AJ Fiedler, alleged administrators claimed the list of indebted students was six pages long.
The principal's secretary at Fair Lawn High School, Diane Knudsen, told The Daily Beast that the school expected students to repay the school for outstanding debts before graduation.
Upon further questioning, Knudsen clarified that students who had not paid their lunch or book debts would not graduate.
"It's not a ceremony," Knudsen said of students being named in front of their classmates for non-payment. "It's their obligation."
She later told another Daily Beast reporter that she didn’t know what was said or done at the ceremony, and that questions should go through Vice Principal Frank Guadagnino, who didn’t pick up his phone.
Koval received press attention from The Washington Post last year after being called to the principal’s office at Fair Lawn for tweeting opinions about global politics on Twitter, and was threatened by school administrators with a lawsuit when they believed the meeting was recorded.
Koval did not record today’s assembly, and said students were told their phones would be confiscated for doing so.
After Koval’s tweet went viral, Twitter users offered to pay off students’ debts, some claiming they called the school make sure students received diplomas.
“If this story has frustrated you, as it has many, I recommend you look to your own community. Many kind people are donating to fellow students at Fair Lawn High, and that's swell, but I think this is important, too. There are neighborhoods more in need than mine,” said Koval.
“The usage of name and shame tactics by school administration against often marginalized and/or poor students is an issue everywhere.”