A federal lawsuit against Forest Park School District 91 and several of its officials was dismissed last week, with a judge ruling that the lawsuit, which accused the Forest Park Middle School of failing to provide free lunches to low-income students as mandated by federal law, was exceedingly vague in its allegations.
“A history of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, President Johnson’s War on Poverty and general historical quotes regarding public corruption are not appropriate material for a complaint,” wrote Judge Virginia M. Kendall in her decision, filed April 3 in the US District Court of the Northern District of Illinois.
Kendall gave Deborah Cole and Dr. Negale T. Jackson, founders of the Forest Park Restorative Institute Center (FPRIC) and the Forest Park Future International Lawyer Club, a period of 30 days to file a new complaint which states their allegations in a more concise manner.
When contacted by the Review, Cole said it was the first she had heard of the ruling. She said that she had received a motion from another lawsuit that had nothing to do with her instead, and accused the courts of “playing games” with the case.
She said that she would file an amended lawsuit within the next few days. “What I will do is tone it down and just go with my exhibits,” she said. “Everything we are saying, I have backup…this is no joke.”
Dist. 91 Superintendent Randolph Tinder said he was satisfied, but not surprised, by the ruling.
“This wasn’t totally unexpected,” he said. “One of our attorneys actually filed a motion for an extension of the length of time we had to respond and the court said that was unnecessary because they had already dismissed it.”
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 28, accused the school of violating several federal statutes including the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, the Child Nutrition Initiative Act of 2003 and the Pupil Bus Transportation Service act. It alleged that Tinder conspired with the school board to conceal from parents that their children are entitled to these by neglecting to provide them with the necessary information and application forms.
It did not provide any specific examples or evidence of these charges, though Cole said she promises to provide documentation and witness testimony if and when it goes to court. No monetary award is being sought, but merely an injunction forcing the school to comply with the programs.
District 91, which includes the middle school as well as the four Forest Park elementary schools, received $130,000 from the federal government for the National School Lunch Program and $17,000 for the School Breakfast Program this year, according to the budget posted on its Web site.
According to Tinder, the middle school is not obliged to provide free breakfasts, nor is it required to provide free bussing except for special ed students or those who live over 1.5 miles from the school they attend.
Tinder estimated that about 100 of the middle school’s 330 students qualify for the lunch program, but said that some families choose not to apply due to the social stigmas that come along with receiving free lunches.
Cole said she felt more students should be eligible. “They’re allowing 100 applications to go through and hiding the rest,” she said.
Cole provided the Review with phone numbers for three parents she said would back up her allegations in court. One of these parents, who did not wish to be named, said she was told by the school district that her income qualifies her for reduced price lunches, which her daughter had been receiving, but Cole informed her that she should actually be receiving free lunches since her daughter receives medical assistance from the state.
She said she had not yet discussed the matter with the school district and had not researched which program she qualifies for on her own.
Another parent said she was denied free lunches for her son at the middle school though the only income she receives comes through her social security check.
The third parent, Kinyatta Buford, said that she receives reduced price lunches for her children at Garfield School and the middle school, and is unsure if she is eligible for free lunches. Her primary complaint, she said, is that her children are not provided with adequate lunches by the schools when they forget to bring their own lunches or money to purchase a lunch.
Tinder has said that the school district’s free lunch program is fully complicit with the law, and has noted that since the program is funded through reimbursements from the government which are based on the number of students who receive free and discounted lunches each year, it would be pointless to deny free lunches to eligible students and impossible to pocket money designated for the program as the initial lawsuit alleged.
According to state records, 39.3 percent of the middle school’s students and 38.5 percent of Dist. 91 students are considered low-income.
All children receiving food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and most foster children are eligible for free meals regardless of income, according to documents posted at the USDA Web site. For the current school year, a family with three children must have an annual income of $20,917 or less to qualify for free meals, while families of three with incomes under $29,767 are eligible for reduced price meals.