An Idaho cafeteria worker who says she was fired for giving a student a free lunch was previously convicted of theft charges in 2013.
Court documents say Dalene Bowden was ordered to pay $370 in restitution after police found surveillance footage of her removing cash from her employer’s cash register and putting it into her tip jar at a Pocatello golf course in 2012.
She was later convicted of two counts of theft under $1,000.
Bowden was fired last week by Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 after she gave a free lunch to a 12-year-old girl who didn’t have any money. Bowden offered to pay for the $1.70 lunch. But her supervisor refused and she was placed on leave and then fired two days later.
A registered letter informed Bowden that her employment with the district was terminated due to her theft of school district property. The one-page letter was signed by District 25 Human Resource Director Susan Pettit.
After a national backlash on social media and international news coverage, District 25 issued a press release around 9 p.m. Wednesday offering Bowden her job back.
However, by 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Bowden said she hadn’t personally heard from the school district. She said that while she loved her job, she’s anxious and confused about her reinstatement.
“I have to think about it,” Bowden said. “I’m afraid that they would just make my life miserable and then try to set me up, or get rid of me some other way.”
Bowden didn’t return multiple attempts for comment on the previous theft charge.
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad met with Interim District 25 Superintendent Doug Howell Wednesday afternoon and discussed the impact the firing had on the city.
“It’s not like me to tell anybody else how to manage their business unless it’s affecting my business and in this case, it was,” Blad said. “The city received dozens of phone calls, and our Facebook and Twitter pages were blowing up about the firing.”
A press release issued by city officials Wednesday stated that Bowden’s firing and her subsequent reinstatement were handled by Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 officials and no elected city officials or city employees were involved in the decision-making process.
Blad said the district does not bear all the blame, but it’s gotten the brunt of it.
“I wish the district would have come out in front of all of this and let people know why they did what they did,” Blad said. “They know that this is a serious issue and this is not what Pocatello is about.”
In a press release Wednesday night, Howell said that state law prohibits school officials from discussing personnel matters. But he said that the district has never taken action against an employee for a single incident.
However, Bowden said she’s worked for District 25 for the past three years and she’s never been written up or reprimanded on the job. But she said she did receive a verbal warning once for giving a student a free cookie.
Howell said about 6,500 children in District 25 receive reduced or free hot lunches daily. That’s about 53 percent of all students in D-25.
“Our District focuses on the success of every student and recognizes nutrition is an important part of each student’s education and learning,” Howell said in the press release. “In addition to the Federal Service Program, the District works directly with the Pocatello office of the Idaho Food Bank and receives and distributes 1,000 packs of food each month to our students.”
The superintendent said the federal food service program is strictly regulated and federal funds for the program are jeopardized if procedures aren’t followed closely.
Howell said the school districts appreciate the role of food service workers and the relationships that they build with students. And he said effort will be put into making sure that workers can direct students who struggle to the proper resources.
“In the spirit of the holidays, the District has been in communication with Ms. Bowden extending an opportunity for her to return to employment with the District,” Howell said.
Bowden’s story went viral after it appeared in the Journal last week.
As of Wednesday, Bowden’s story had been picked up by the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, Fox News, NBC News, “Inside Edition,” TV stations nationwide, Glen Beck’s network, The Blaze, and media throughout Idaho. The story was also the No. 1 trending story on Facebook nationwide on Wednesday afternoon.
As of Wednesday night, more than 71,000 people had signed an online petition asking that Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 reinstate Bowden.
A gofundme.com account raised more than $12,300 to help Bowden fund action against the district. An anonymous donor contributed $500 and asked Bowden to set up a fund for students in District 25 who can’t afford to pay for their lunch.
“There really are a lot of really good people out there,” Bowden said. “I know that and I am just overwhelmed by the response.”
Bowden said she plans to challenge the district’s policy, and while she admits that she broke the rules, Bowden said she would most likely do it again.
“What are you supposed to do when the kid tells you they’re hungry and they don’t have any money,” Bowden said. “We’re supposed to take the tray away and dump it, right there in front of them, and I couldn’t do that.”
Last week, District 25 Public Information Officer Shelley Allen said that students who exceed an $11 lunch charge-limit are provided a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and milk. Parents are notified once the lunch bill reaches the $11 cutoff.
Ironically, the girl Bowden gave the free lunch to was within her $11 limit, but didn’t know that and was too afraid and embarrassed to ask about her account balance.
“That’s probably why she came to me. The kids love me and I love them too, the whole thing hurts my heart,” Bowden said.
The controversy sparked by Bowden’s firing is not the first time Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 has received negative attention from the national and international media.
Two years ago, public outrage over the district’s firing of a popular girls high school basketball coach spurred widespread media attention and initiated a local effort to reinstate coach Laraine Cook.
Cook was dismissed in October 2013 after she posted a photo on Facebook showing her then-fiancée and now husband, Tom Harrison, with his hand on her covered breast.
Cook was fired over the photo, but was later reinstated by a grievance panel.