HOUSTON – A middle school police officer recently wasted his day investigating what he thought was a fake $2 bill used by an eighth-grader in the school lunch line.
The incident at Fort Bend Independent School District’s Christa McAuliffe Middle School is only one of several serious investigations into alleged lunch thefts pursued by district officials that could send some students to prison, ABC 13 reports.
Danesiah Neal, 14, told the news site her grandmother gave her a $2 bill and she brought it to school to buy lunch, but school police hauled her in for questioning and threatened the girl with felony charges because they were apparently convinced she was a counterfeiter.
“I went to the lunch line and they said my $2 bill was fake,” Neal said. “They gave it to the police. Then they sent me to the police office. A police officer said I could be in big trouble.”
The lead investigator tracked the bill to the store where grandma received it, then to the bank, where it was confirmed as authentic. Neal, meanwhile, was forced to forego her chicken nuggets.
Neal’s grandmother, Sharon Kay Joseph, called the situation “outrageous.”
“He brought me back my two dollar bill,” she told ABC 13. “He didn’t apologize. He should have and the school should have because they pulled Danesiah out of lunch and she didn’t eat lunch that day because they took her money.”
“It was very outrageous for them to do it,” Joseph said. “There was no need for police involvement. They’re charging kids like they’re adults now.”
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The news station examined all police reports from three Houston-area school districts since the 2013-14 school year and found a total of 40 similar cases in which students faced felony investigations for alleged lunch line forgeries.
The potential felony forgery charge carries up to a 10 year prison sentence and remains on a student’s criminal record for life. All of the 40 students investigated with a race listed in the records were minority students.
Students under investigation for lunch forgeries are sent to alternative schools while their cases work through the legal system.
In a second example cited by ABC 13, a 13-year-old at Cook Middle School in the Cy-Fair Independent School District unwittingly gave lunch officials a fake $10 bill, and was arrested by school lunch police the next day.
“The friend pulls out a $10 bill and his friend thinks that it’s real,” Mani Nezami, the boy’s attorney, told the news site.
School officials later realized it was a fake and tracked it back to the student, who technically qualifies for free lunch, earns As and Bs, and has never been in trouble before, Nezami said.
“He comes to school the next day and he gets arrested and charged with a third-degree felony,” he said. “He’s in the seventh grade. He doesn’t handle money that much.”
“They put him in handcuffs,” Nezami said. “They put him in a police car, the whole bit.”
The case is pending as the student attends alternative school.
“He could face years in jail or prison,” Nezami said.