Ingram: Why ban parents from eating lunch with their kids at school?

Published Sept. 20, 2016

Prior to last year, my three children attended Cambridge Christian school in Tampa. Last year, we moved across town and decided to send them to public schools.

As a parent, the biggest difference has been the lack of a warm and welcoming environment that encourages and fosters parental involvement on campus at the public schools, which we found at Cambridge.

My wife and I are involved at school. We are members of, and contribute financially to, the PTA; we have read to our younger girls' classrooms; and we have volunteered to help with class parties and field trips. Last year I spoke at the school's career day, and I also mentor an underprivileged boy by visiting with him one-on-one at school several times a month.

Of all the things we do for the school or our girls on campus, my favorite has always been having lunch with them in the cafeteria.

I remember from my days as an elementary school student how exciting it was when my dad showed up to have lunch with me at school. My younger girls share that enthusiasm. Last year, I had lunch with them more than a half dozen times, and they asked for many more.

Imagine my surprise last week when they told me the school's policy had changed and that parents could no longer have lunch with their kids — with the exception of their birthdays.

I called the school's principal to find out why. First, she informed me the policy of allowing parents on campus for lunch was up to each school. She said the reason for the change was too many parents were not following the rules. Pictures were being taken of other kids and posted on Facebook without permission. Parents were bringing in prohibited fast-foods. Some of them had the nerve to discipline somebody else's little Johnny when they got out of hand in the lunchroom. Others lingered around the school and pigeonholed or pestered their kid's teachers.

The principal then told me she's had lots of positive comments about the change — from parents who felt guilty they never came to lunch with their kids. So we are now measuring school policy success based on the relief of parent guilt over the interest of those who actively want to participate in their children's lives (cue Twilight Zone music).

None of these explanations sat well with me. I pointed out the ban on parents having lunch at school is due to just a few bad apples. I suggested getting parents to sign a form that they understand the rules about parent behavior in the lunchroom. I advocated allowing parents to have lunch with their kids only at designated tables or outside. What about a designated parent lunch day each week? Each of my recommendations was in response to a specific concern the principal cited as a need for the rule change. They fell on deaf ears.

When she pulled out the old, "it's in the interest of security" as justification, it became clear she had no interest in using reason, logic or common sense to find a solution. The rule change is about the school's convenience, not the interest of parents and students.

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In a final attempt to prompt fairness, good customer service, and not making policy for the lowest common-denominator, I pointed out I am invited to come to school to help with another parent's kid as his mentor but that I am not welcome to eat lunch with my own kids (cue chirping crickets in background). The situational irony was completely lost on the principal.

Unsatisfied, I called Hillsborough County School Board member Sally Harris. When told of the situation, she was perplexed. She said the district is conducting workshops (and spending taxpayer dollars) with school administrators to, as Harris put it, "Change the culture of the district and get parents feeling more positive about schools and welcome on campus."

"The school district is trying to promote good customer service, community and family. There is a big push about being a family," she said.

"(But) it sounds to me, like we're talking out of both sides of our mouths if we're saying we want parents involved, but don't want them on campus eating lunch with their kids," Harris told me.

Exactly. Get involved with your kids. Just don't make plans to have lunch with them on campus.

Welcome to public school.

Chris Ingram is a Tampa-based columnist, Republican political consultant, and political analyst for Bay News 9.