Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lunch lady jailed for shorting kids

The following piece appeared in the Union Leader.

The following piece is a reminder as to why we must be more vigilant about the people and the institutions with which we are to trust the care of our children 180 days a year, seven and half hours a day. Public schools are government schools and just like in the government there is waste, fraud and corruption. Public schools are a gravy train for the employees as long as there is not outside oversight and full financial transparency by the institution parents must take watch over the education of their children.

Parents should have a choice to where they send their children to school. Parents should not be forced to send a child to an institution they do not trust.

Lunch lady jailed for shorting kids
New Hampshire Union Leader Correspondent

BRENTWOOD – When Heidi Morrison noticed her 11-year-old daughter's lunch money account at Hampstead Middle School was running out faster than usual, she asked then-cafeteria manager Terry Moulton what was happening.

Moulton told Morrison that her daughter was spending her lunch money on extra ice cream desserts. Morrison explained that she and her husband were concerned because the girl had suffered from an eating disorder, and they were worried that she was suffering a relapse. According to Morrison, Moulton agreed that was probably the case.

But the girl wasn't buying extra snacks, and she wasn't suffering from an eating disorder; Moulton was stealing the girl's money and blaming the child when anyone asked where the money went. In total, prosecutors estimate that over the course of two school years, Moulton used this method to pocket $10,123 from more than 200 students.

According to police Detective Kenneth Owen, Moulton, 51, of 21 Jesse George Road, Plaistow, would accept checks and cash that parents would send into school with students to be deposited in lunch money accounts, but would credit their accounts for less. According to parents, there were other times when Moulton would charge students extra -- despite their protests -- and keep the difference. The thefts were sometimes only a few dollars, but there were hundreds of incidents, Owen said, noting that he submitted more than 3,500 pages of documentation detailing the crime.

Moulton pleaded guilty to two felony counts of theft by deception last November. Yesterday, Rockingham County Superior Court Judge Tina Nadeau sentenced her to 1 1/„2 to six years in state prison, with an additional five to 10 suspended pending good behavior for 10 years. She must also pay full restitution.

Moulton's attorney, Brian Lavalle, compared his client's deeds to other workplace thefts and said she was facing tough times and made a bad choice.

"Some people, like Terry Moulton, find themselves in dire personal situations and make foolish decisions,'' he said.

Nadeau took issue with that characterization and said Moulton deserved to spend at least as long in prison as she spent stealing the money.

"You made a choice day-in and day-out,'' Nadeau said, referring to evidence that out of 290 school days, Moulton skimmed money from lunch accounts 212 days.

Nadeau took particular issue with Moulton's interaction with Morrison.

"I need to say this is not an ordinary theft. She stole from a child with an eating disorder, a fact she knew and exploited,'' Nadeau said. "In all my years on the bench, it's difficult to imagine a more depraved effort to conceal a crime.''

Lavalle asked Nadeau to sentence his client to 12 months in prison, suspended, and 100 hours of community service. Nadeau, however, seemed swayed by the string of parents who described how Moulton not only took their money but also destroyed trust between them and their children.

Michelle Iturralde told Nadeau about how for two years her now-14-year-old son tried to tell her that Moulton was charging him for things he didn't buy -- sometimes charging him the price of two meals for a single bottle of water -- and taking his money. Unlike several other parents who said they doubted their children were telling the truth about their money, Iturralde said she just thought her son didn't understand.

On more than one occasion, Iturralde said, after her son filled his lunch tray with food, Moulton informed him that he had no money in his account, took the tray and dumped it in the trash.

"I was furious and heartbroken my son went hungry because someone stole his money,'' she said. "I am embarrassed I was not more persistent'' in investigating.

Iturralde said that at one point, her son confronted Moulton himself, asking what had happened to his money.

"He said she made a face and sarcastically said, I took it,'"‚'' Iturralde told Nadeau.

Hampstead School District Assistant Superintendent Richard LaSalle also spoke, telling Nadeau that the community has lost its trust in the district.

"We teach our children there are dangerous strangers and safe adults; anyone who enters a public school must be the latter,'' LaSalle said. "This is a classic case of the schoolyard bully.''

Assistant Rockingham County Attorney Lisa Ricks, who became visibly emotional during her argument regarding Moulton's incarceration, agreed.

"She's the ultimate school bully,'' Ricks said. "The fact that someone would equate this to (regular) employee theft is mind-boggling. It's stealing from children.''

Moulton did not speak during the hearing and was led away by sheriff's deputies.

Speaking on her behalf, Lavalle said she "expresses nothing but regret.''

Quote of the day

"I have absolutely no idea what my generation did to enrich our democracy. We dropped the ball. We entered a period of complacency and closed our eyes to the public corruption of our democracy."
Wynton Marsalis

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