Johnny Cook, at his home in Haralson County, Thursday, June 6, 2013
HARALSON COUNTY, Ga. -- Surveillance video from inside a school cafeteria shows that a student who claimed he was turned away on May 21 without lunch simply because he lacked 40 cents to pay for it never went to get his lunch that day, at all.
But the student's complaint -- which his outraged school bus driver posted on Facebook, writing that the student confided in him -- has erupted into a social media firestorm, with people around the world criticizing the school system.
"Whether this kid told me the whole story or not, I wholeheartedly believed him," said the school bus driver, Johnny Cook, Thursday night. "I believed him with every fiber of my being that he was telling me the truth."
Cook's belief in the student cost him his job; he was fired because of his Facebook posts. But Cook continued to insist Thursday that the school system does turn away students who can't pay for their lunch, even though this particular student was not turned away that particular day, as the student claimed.
The school video shows students filing into the cafeteria for lunch at Haralson County Middle School, including, according to the principal, the student who later complained that he was turned away for lack of money.
But that student does not get in line with the others.
Instead, he walks off to the side, out of camera range.
For the next 45 minutes, he cannot be seen. He never gets in line for lunch.
And there is no way for anyone to walk into the kitchen to get lunch except by walking back into camera range where the students line up.
Finally, the student walks back into camera range -- and walks out of the cafeteria without ever getting lunch.
But that night, Johnny Cook wrote on his Facebook page, "A middle schooler got on my bus this evening and said mr johnny i'm hungry, I said why are you hungry buddy? Didn't you eat lunch? He said no sir I didn't have any money on my account. I said they wouldn't let you charge it? No sir."
And on May 24, in an interview with 11Alive News, this is how Cook recalled his conversation with the student:
"So I said, 'So you didn't get to eat at all,' and he said 'No, Sir, I didn't eat anything, I just, I had to put my tray back and go back.'"
The school's cafeteria manager, Dorothy Harmon, said Thursday evening that the video proves that Cook's allegations about the boy being turned away "didn't happen. Had that child come through that line that day, he would have ate."
Harmon insisted she has never turned away that student or any other child, without food, for any reason.
"We don't have that many that come through without money," she said. "If a child comes through and they don't have money, I'll normally pay for their lunch," and she takes care of the accounting later. Sometimes she pays for their lunches out of her own pocket without reimbursement. "It's nothing new.... Any child who comes through that line will eat lunch."
"We will never deny a student a meal even if they can't pay for it on that particular day," said School Superintendent Brett Stanton. He has been disappointed at what he believes are unfounded criticisms. "Oftentimes what people read on Facebook, or just read in general, they embrace as the truth. And that's not always the case."
When 11Alive News showed the surveillance video to Cook, he speculated that maybe the student didn't get in line that day because he thought that without money he would be turned away.
"Regardless of whether he went through the line, whether he didn't, he still didn't eat," Cook said. "And he didn't eat because of a reason. And the reason was he was forty cents overdrawn in his account. And he had gotten the message that if you're overdrawn at the end of the [school] year, you're not eating.... For some reason in his head, he had the idea or the thought that, 'I will not be allowed to eat because I'm forty cents overdrawn.' And that comes from a rule, that comes from a policy, that's stated at the last two weeks of the [school] year, you can't charge [your lunch on a charge account]. So he knew, going in, that he couldn't."
Superintendent Stanton said the rule, the policy, is to feed students regardless of whether they can pay for their lunch, or whether they can or cannot charge it.
"But they have to go through the line. A student in our school system will never be refused a meal, but they have to go through the cafeteria line" and get their food.
"My understanding of what's really going on," Cook said, "is that kids are being brought to that line, and if they don't have the money, then they [the cafeteria workers] are dumping their plate, they're dumping a perfectly good plate of [hot] food out, throwing it away." The non-paying children, he said, are then given "an alternative meal" of free peanut butter sandwiches or cheese sandwiches, or they must "walk away" without eating.
"I never take a plate, never," Harmon said. "I never take a plate away from a child. They go through. I don't take a plate and give them a sandwich. That just does not happen."
As for the student in this case choosing not to get in line to eat that day, Stanton and Harmon said it is impossible for school staffers to monitor every one of the more than 800 Haralson County Middle School students every day to see if, or how much, they are eating. Monitors are in place in the earlier grades, they said, to make sure the younger children eat lunch.
The fact that Harmon sometimes pays for students' lunches out of her own pocket, Cook said, supports his argument that the schools do not adequately support the lunch program.
"He [and other students are] at a school that we're legally bound to send him to, and certainly we can take care of him while he's there," Cook said, pointing out that cafeteria workers are not paid high salaries. "If they thought there was any other way for a child to eat, they wouldn't take money out of their pockets."
Cook said he is grateful for the support he has received on-line. There is also an Change.org petition calling on the Superintendent to re-hire him.
"It's a super thing. I think they're supporting an issue that everyone of them can relate to. That's why [I have] such a great, big following. That's why that post has been shared over 200,000 times, that's why over 20 Million hits have been happening. It's because people can relate. It's happening in their town. It's happening all over the United States. I think it's a wonderful thing. If I can make a small change, or if I can have some little bitty impact on this change taking place, then I think it's a wonderful thing."
Superintendent Stanton said he could not comment on whether Cook could get his job back, but "it's wrong for an individual to 'ramp up' on Facebook a situation" like this, especially, he said, one that's based on, at best, a misunderstanding of what a student might have said or believed about the school lunch program.
Cook was fired for violating the school system's "Acceptable Use Policy" that he signed when he was hired. It governs the employees' personal use of social media: "Employees who post or contribute any comment or content on social networking sites that causes a substantial disruption to the instructional environment are subject to disciplinary procedures up to and including termination."
"Yes, I would love my job back," Cook said, because he is self-employed and he and his family need the family medical benefits.
Cook said there will be a rally in his support, outside Haralson County school system headquarters in Tallapoosa, on June 11 at 6:00 p.m.
Stanton said he hopes the school system will be able to enhance its free lunch program soon.
"Knowing that so many of our students are on free and reduced lunch," he said, "we're looking at trying to obtain a grant next year where all of our students will be provided a free lunch and breakfast."
He applied for the grant, he said, weeks ago, long before this current controversy erupted.