South Hadley Mom calls for changes to school lunch program

A woman who said her daughter was regularly bullied at South Hadley High, urged officials at the Dec 13 School Committee meeting, to change how students that get free or reduced price lunches are identified.

Jennifer Kalvinek, delivered two copies of an online petition with over 5,000 signatures to the committee, calling on the high school to stop requiring students receiving assistance in paying for lunch under the ‘National School Lunch Program’, use a school issued ticket, to get their lunch.

Kalvinek, whose daughter 16-year-old Payton Spinney was one of those students while at the school, claims the neon orange tickets, single out students from low-income households for harassment from their peers, and amounts to segregating them based on economic status.

” These are high schoolers, they don’t want to do that. They don’t want another reason to be bullied,” she said to committee members during the public comment portion of the meeting. “You have a lot of poverty in South Hadley, and a lot of kids who just don’t get lunch cause they don’t want to be segregated.”    

The allegations come nearly two years after Phoebe Prince, a 15-year old freshman at the school and friend of Payton’s, hanged herself in Jan 2010 after being subjected to bullying and abuse by six other students. The tragedy touched off a conversation about the issue of school bullying, and resulted in state legislation mandating that such incidents be reported and that all school districts craft a local plan to tackle the problem.

But according to Kalvinek little has seems to have changed since then.

Since moving from Ware  into a South Hadley homeless shelter with her three children two years ago, to escape from an abusive relationship,she says her oldest daughter Payton, who has Aspergers Syndrome, was routinely tormented by other students, with faculty doing little to stop it.

Under school policy, students who use a lunch ticket must pick it up from the main office at the beginning of each week. Those who can’t or forget to do so, must then stand at the back of the line until all others are serviced, in order to be processed by the lunchroom cashier. When one day Payton didn’t get hers, it so embarrassed her that her mother says she refused to return to school.

” The last day of School March 14 last year, she was bullied in the cafeteria, called ‘fatty’, and pushed in the cafeteria ,  where she was made to stand in the back [of the line] because she didn’t have a free lunch ticket,” said Kalvinek.

Instead of using tickets, Kalvinek suggests the school get a point of sales system, software that many other area schools have, where students pay for their lunch electronically and more discreetly.

Dr. Gus Sayer, the Superintendent of South Hadley Schools, concedes that the tickets are an inefficient system. In fact, he says the town approved money, in its FY12 budget in May, to be used for the purchase of such software, and the school is currently looking at which type to buy.

However,  he denies that the tickets have been a source of such bullying, saying both the Principal and Vice Principal have told him that there have never been any reports of  such occurrences.

Ashley Willis, a student at the High School who is also a student representative on the committee, denies that the tickets  make low-income students targets, explaining that  many others also use them.

” The tickets are not just for people who have free and reduced price lunch, they are also for people who pay for lunch at the beginning of the week,” said Willis, in a conversation after the meeting. “They get the same exact ticket, so just because they have they have a ticket doesn’t mean they get free or reduced lunch.”

Kalvinek has publicly criticized the school in the past, with several interviews, where she has also accused faculty and teachers of humiliating her daughter in front of other students, and failing to take action to punish students that do so.

She even obtained an attorney, and claims that the school failed to implement her IEP plan and threw it away once Payton began the current school semester at the Gateway Program at Holyoke Community College.

It’s a charge that Dr.Sayer and the school disputes.

Update: According to a post on the petition’s page, which  is said to have been updated three days after the meeting, Kalvinek says that Dr. Sayer informed her that within three weeks ( in other words in this coming week); a new system will be put in place.

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