5-year-old John Robert Caravella went hungry last week at his New Jersey school because his parents owed $2.00 on his lunch bill. John Robert is autistic and non-verbal and his parents would not have known about what happened except for a note his teacher wrote:
“John Robert had a difficult time following directions this morning, he had a much better afternoon. John Robert was also not able to get lunch today he ate his muffins. [sic] There is an issue with an outstanding bill.”
As the boy’s parents, John and Silvia Caravella, noted to ABC News, they did not understand the lunch payment system at Cliffwood Elementary School in Matawan, where John has a long day in an autism program from about 9 am to 4 pm.
Their concern increased due John Robert’s inability to communicate, and the Caravellas remain aghast that his teachers or other school staff did not simply contact them immediately, especially as both work in the same town where John Robert attends school and they could have brought over all $2.00 of the missing funds.
Instead, John Robert had to sit in the cafeteria without any food while his classmates ate.
School District Fails to Apologize to Family
David Healy, superintendent of schools for the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional School District, said in a written statement that “this incident occurred due to an unfortunate oversight that has since been addressed.”
Well, not really.
The Caravellas are still so upset that they did not attend Back to School night. The only response they received from the teacher was a written note that “it wouldn’t happen again” as the family is now up-to-date with lunch payments.
As NJ.com reports, plenty of Matawan parents are still as upset as the Caravellas. We live in New Jersey and my husband and I are still extremely bothered by what happened.
Out 15-year-old autistic son, Charlie, can talk a little but even less when he was 5 years old. The vast majority of his behavior issues can be traced to his struggle to communicate. He attends a county autism center and there have been days when Charlie has had no lunch, sometimes because it got swiped off the table in an unhappy moment. His teachers have assured us not to worry about him going without food at such times, as there are crackers and other things they have to give him. If I ever forgot to put Charlie’s lunchbox in his bag as he boarded the bus, the school staff (aware that hungry kids are more likely to have behavior issues; one doesn’t have to ask why) would certainly notify us.
“No Lunch” Incident Highlights Challenges Facing Kids With Disabilities in Public Schools
The incident painfully highlights the challenges that continue to face kids with disabilities in school settings. At 1 in 88, New Jersey has one of the US’s highest rates for autism in children and many of the state’s public school districts have well-established special education programs for autistic children. But districts vary widely in their expertise, understanding and resources to train and support teachers, therapists and aides in the special teaching methods that can help autistic students thrive.
It goes without saying that school districts everywhere are under constraints to keep budget downs. All students with disabilities are federally mandated to receive appropriate education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and their services can sometimes require some 20 percent of a school district’s budget. A former Massachusetts school superintendent, Nathan Levenson, is arguing that cutting special education spending could improve student achievement and save billions of dollars in the process. Hiring “more-effective general education and special education teachers—not just more of them or more staff” could improve students’ outcomes, he says.
How Levenson’s ideas would work out in practice is certainly hard to gauge. But the topic of his study — cutting special education costs — shows that there is an undercurrent of resentment about the extra costs and extra efforts needed to teach special ed students.
The Matawan-Aberdeen school district where John Robert attends school still needs to do a lot of explaining, to the Caravellas and to all parents of students with disabilities. The school district’s handling of the incident about John Robert’s lunch reflects very unflatteringly on it, especially in its policies for communicating with parents and in particular parents of children with disabilities. Worst of all, the school district has made school even more challenging for John Robert who, while unable to talk, may well sense all the controversy and bad feelings. What kind of way is that for a 5-year-old to start a school year?
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