5-Year-Old Autistic Boy Who Can’t Talk Denied Lunch By School

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?

Related Care2 Coverage

My Son Can’t Read a Ballot: Should He Vote Anyway?

5 Facts Most People Don’t Know About Learning Disabilities

Back-To-School When You or Your Kid Is “Different”


Photo by ThinkStock


Winn Adams
Winn A4 years ago

That's crazy and from last September. What's happened since?

Linda R.
Linda R4 years ago

Where was his aide?

Paulett Simunich
Paulett Simunich4 years ago

Absolutely no excuse is acceptable........At this age, teachers walk around the lunch room offering help opening milk boxes......etc......ON ONE saw this little boy had no food in front of him????? Usually children this age tell someone when something seems wrong.......Appears
as if everyone dropped the ball. Now that parents know this happened.....you can bet this will not be repeated......whoever made the decision not to offer food to John Robert.....should be looking for another job.!!!!!! And you administrators.....this is a simple housekeeping chore for you.......e-mail the parents...put a note in his back-pack.....NO acceptable excuses!!

Ruth S.
Ruth S4 years ago

I can't believe the lack of compassion for this boy's need for lunch...over $2 due? Esp. when a phone call to the parents would have taken care of it...or an adult paying for it out of their own pocket. Good Grief!

Richard Hancock
Richard H4 years ago

And this is caring?

Haleene W.
Haleene Williams4 years ago

We feed people in countries we don't even know where they are on a map, and yet our own people are starved and left without mental care all the time.
We deny education for trained professionals so they go into the military and become collateral damage in wars that are not ours, and then they suffer or die from that.
We leave people living in the streets with their families and never bother to find out why they are there or give them a real chance to turn things around, because the real working stiffs today are taxed, fined, permitted and licences into oblivion, but come from another country with no ties to previous citizens that have paid into the system, and we have packages to offer you.
What a screwed up country we live in today.

Patience Corfield

Really!?! Where's the common sense!

Stanley Rampersad
Stanley B5 years ago

Feed all children, irrespective of disabilities.

Lynn D.
Lynn D5 years ago

That's just pathetic! You would think a school would know how to communicate with kids parents! ... and then, if I had a kid like that I would have been sure that I understood what was going on before I just sent him to school without a lunch and/or $ to pay for it!!! Sad! Thanks for article!

Laura Ricci
Past Member 5 years ago

Parents you all have the right to home-school your child, these are your children.

Tell her to get a job packing groceries for the rest of her life, to be reminded and get out of your kids face, keep strong parents! do let any of your kids attend this "place" its far from a school and far from over, its just beginning. Should any parent need my further support you got it!! I would never allow my kid to enter through there again.

To Linda O:
I disagree with you yes I would blame the school as a whole, because that what it is. One thing like this, you think its an isolated incident, I don't,in fact I personally think its the total opposite.any teacher still working there is just as bad to remain there, I blame it entirely on the school because its rotten to the core.