Ellison: Can’t block students from graduation for lunch debt

ST. PAUL — According to a binding written opinion issued Wednesday by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, public school districts may not restrict student participation in graduation ceremonies because of unpaid meal debt.

The binding opinion was issued in response to a request from Minnesota Commissioner of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker following legal aid reports of some school districts restricting students who owed a meal debt from participating in graduation ceremonies.

Ellison’s opinion relies on two state statutes — The Minnesota Public School Fee Law and the Lunch Aid Law — to support the conclusion.

The attorney general’s opinion cites language of the Public School Fee Law that states “no pupil’s rights or privileges, including the receipt of grades or diplomas, may be denied or abridged for nonpayment of fees. The law also states “any practice leading to suspension, coercion, exclusion, withholding of grades or diplomas, or discriminatory action based upon nonpayment of fees denies pupils their right to equal protection and entitled privileges.”

The opinion determines that a charge for a meal by a public school is a “fee,” that participation in a graduation ceremony constitutes a “privilege,” and that the word “including” means that the prohibition on abridging a student’s privileges for nonpayment of fees is not limited to the receipt of grades or diplomas, hence can include participation in a graduation ceremony or related activity.

The opinion further cites language of the Lunch Aid act that states, “The [school] must also ensure that any reminders for payment of outstanding student meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child participating in the school lunch program.”

“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 in a Wednesday news release.

The opinion is binding. Under Minnesota law, the attorney general’s written opinion on matters relating to public schools is decisive until the question or matters involved are decided by a court of competent jurisdiction.

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