News: CJ Exclusives

Teacher Suspended Over Chicken Nugget Incident

School district official says substituting a preschooler’s lunch was against district policy

The teacher involved in “supplementing” a preschooler’s lunch with chicken nuggets in Hoke County has been suspended indefinitely.

Parents of students in the Pre-Kindergarten program at West Hoke Elementary School in Raeford got a letter from Assistant Superintendent Bob Barnes last week saying a substitute teacher would take over the preschool class until the “issue” is resolved.

It remains unclear why the teacher’s actions violated district policy. State officials responsible for monitoring homemade lunches for preschoolers have told Carolina Journal that the Jan. 30 incident that caused a nationwide uproar satisfied state policy.

The letter from Barnes, dated Feb. 28, reads as follows:

“As I am sure you are aware, we recently experienced an unfortunate situation where a failure to follow district policy resulted in the substitution of a Pre-K student’s lunch at West Hoke Elementary School.This letter is to inform you that Ms. Emma Thomas will be a substitute in [your child’s] classroom until we can bring resolution to this issue. We are pleased that [your child] is enrolled in our Pre-K program and we are confident that Ms. Thomas will continue to provide [him or her] with a very positive educational experience.”

The mother of the 4-year-old girl whose turkey sandwich was replaced by chicken nuggets says the teacher is not to blame and shouldn’t be punished.

“We are concerned for Ms. Maynor [the teacher] and want her back in the classroom, as she was only following guidelines,” the mother wrote in an email to her state representative, Republican G.L. Pridgen of Robeson County. “It’s the government that needs to be reprimanded and changed. Teachers should not be put in a situation to overrule the parent’s lunch of choice.”

Giving the girl a full cafeteria tray, which included chicken nuggets and milk, was not a violation of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ policy, according to DHHS spokeswoman Lori Walston.

“The rules require that the provider at least ensure the missing items are offered,” Walston wrote in an earlier email exchange with CJ. “It would not be a violation for a child to be provided more than what was needed. It is the provider’s choice as to their specific process.”

It is unclear why giving the girl the cafeteria tray violated “district policy.”

“[DHHS] can’t offer comparison between our policy and [that of] any district or childcare center or family childcare home, as we would not have the staffing to compare policies of all programs in the state,” Walston said Monday,.

As CJ reported Feb. 23, Cecelia Ellerbe, a child care consultant who works for the DHHS division, noticed a violation of the state’s nutrition policy at West Hoke Elementary Jan. 26. Walston told CJ Ellerbe “observed the lunch routine” at the preschool, which “would typically include walking through the cafeteria area. She could have seen any items that had been placed on tables, but might not have seen all lunches,” Walston said.

Principal Jackie Samuels sent a letter home with students the next day, informing parents that homemade lunches lacking any of the items required under state regulations and U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines — fluid milk, two servings of fruit or vegetables, a serving of grain or bread, and a serving of meat or meat alternative — would have the missing items supplemented by school staff.

The following Monday, Jan. 30, the incident reported Feb. 14 by CJ occurred. A teacher offered a 4-year-old girl a cafeteria tray with chicken nuggets, a sweet potato, bread, and milk to replace the turkey and cheese sandwich, potato chips, banana, and apple juice her mother had packed for her.

When the girl got off the school bus with her untouched lunch box that day, her mother wanted to know what happened. “She came home with her whole sandwich I had packed, because she chose to eat the nuggets on the lunch tray, because they put it in front of her,” her mother said. “You’re telling a 4-year-old, ‘Oh, your lunch isn’t right,’ and she’s thinking there’s something wrong with her food.”

Neither Samuels, Barnes, nor Superintendent Freddie Williamson responded to requests for comment from Carolina Journal.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.