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Ellison: Schools can't block students from graduation for lunch debt

Keith Ellison answers questions from the press in Minneapolis in this file photo. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Minnesota students who have unpaid lunch debt cannot be blocked from walking in their graduation ceremonies, Attorney General Keith Ellison said Wednesday, May 15.

Ellison issued a written opinion and cited two state statutes — the Minnesota Public School Fee Law and the Lunch Aid Law — to back his conclusion.

“Minnesota law supports the principle that living with the dignity and respect that comes from participating in a graduation ceremony cannot be restricted by your ability to afford your life,” Ellison said.

He issued the opinion at the request of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, who received a letter from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that said some school districts were blocking indebted students from walking in graduation ceremonies.

Jessica Webster, an attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said her firm has followed this issue for the past decade. They sent public records requests to Minnesota school districts to examine meal debt policies and found that some threatened to revoke certain privileges from students in debt.

Roseville and Mahtomedi were among the school districts with such policies in the 2017-2018 school year.

The Roseville policy stated that certain privileges, such as participation in extracurricular activities and receiving a cap and gown, could be denied to indebted students. Roseville Area Schools spokesman Josh Collins said the policy was not put into practice last year and has since been removed.

“Children shouldn’t be punished for what are really grown-up issues,” Collins said.

The Mahtomedi district policy said students in debt could be pulled from field trips, sports and other senior activities until their balance was paid. Superintendent Barbara Duffrin said that policy is no longer active.

Ellison’s decision also follows publicity over an $8,000 donation from Valerie Castile, mother of slain motorist Philando Castile, that wiped out lunch debt for seniors at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope. That school said it has never blocked graduation participation over lunch debt.

“We know the tide is turning. We know Minnesotans hate these practices,” Webster said. “Parents are appalled, teachers are appalled, administrators and school boards are rethinking these practices for collecting meal debt.”

The Education Department said it couldn’t immediately say how many districts might be restricting participation over lunch debt, but Ricker said the department gets calls each spring from families concerned about the issue.

“If we get those calls this spring, we now have the opinion of the attorney general,” she said.

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