Facebook post about hungry child gets school bus driver fired

A Georgia school bus driver is so upset when a 6th-grader tells him that he was 40 cents short for lunch, and therefore hungry, that he posts about it online. Naturally, the curse of Facebook strikes again.

Johnny Cook. CBS Atlanta/Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Let's role play.

You're a school bus driver at Haralson County Middle School in Georgia. A 6th-grader gets on your bus and complains he's hungry.

You ask him why he's hungry. The kid says he was 40 cents short on his lunch card, so he was denied food.

When this scenario played out for bus driver Johnny Cook, he took to his Facebook page to express his shock and offer to help any child who is short of lunch money.

However, as CBS Atlanta reports, the school wasn't too pleased with this expression of concern. Cook told CBS Atlanta:

Had it on my mind and had it on my heart and simply made the Facebook post that said that, 'Mr. Johnny I'm hungry,' and told the story exactly like it was. I posted my phone number and said 'the next time we have a kid at the register for 40 cent and we can't feed him, please call me. I'll scrape up the money.' About 200 people liked it, loved it, did all the things that Facebook does and it just caught fire

You might imagine that the school called him in for a chat, to help identify the child and analyze the problem.

Almost.

Cook says the school superintendent asked him to either say sorry and take the post down, or be very sorry indeed.

CBS Atlanta 46

Cook felt "in my heart of hearts" that the child told him the truth. He says he was fired, a fact that the school doesn't deny. School officials told the Times-Georgian that he was fired for making derogatory statements about the school.

Haralson County Superintendent Brett Stanton offered CBS Atlanta a further nuance -- that the child had cooked up the story.

He said he checked with the staff and examined video footage and could find no evidence that the 6th-grader entered the lunch line.

But is it possible that the child was somehow missed? Stanton admitted: "When you have almost 1,000 students, it's very difficult to notice."

Here's where the contradictions blossom. The school told the Times-Georgian that it had talked to the child and to a parent engagement coordinator. The conclusion was that the child didn't go through the lunch line.

The 6th-grader, however -- and his family -- insist he is telling the truth. The boy even posted to Cook's Facebook page a fuller account.

He says that not only was he refused lunch, but that the school principal, Brian Ridley, called him in the next day to ask which school bus he rode.

Ridley told the Times-Georgian: "We try to be very aware of what's going on in a child's life, because sometimes they're embarrassed (to tell us they have no money for food). We go out of our way to make sure our kids are fed while also preserving their dignity."

Ridley also said he didn't think anyone was lying. He offered the politically correct explanation of "miscommunication."

Cook -- who admits he should have gone to the school first with his concerns -- is now enjoying hundreds of thousands of Facebook supporters, as well as a petition on Change. org.

Meanwhile, he posted this to Facebook: "Ok people if any of you know of any employment opportunities with health insurance benefits for a man with great work ethic, can operate most anything, can sell even better than that! I have a class b drivers license with passenger, hazmat and tanker endorsements."

So let's go back to the role playing.

Why would a 6th-grader get on a bus and tell the driver that he was hungry because he was 40 cents short on his lunch card? Perhaps kids sometimes say the strangest things. Perhaps the child was looking for extreme sympathy. Perhaps he was, indeed, embarrassed in the lunch room about his financial situation. He could, of course, have been telling the truth.

Some might not be able to imagine that a human being seeing a hungry child would deny them food over a 40 cents shortfall.

Yet Cook says he has received messages from all over America that children have been caught in similar predicaments.

Moreover, if, as the school contends, the incident never happened, will the child be disciplined for lying and causing so much controversy? Will he be expelled, even?

It seems not. It seems the school feels public embarrassment on Facebook is truly a far more terrible thing.

The 6th-Grader's explanation on Cook's Facebook page. Johnny Cook/Facebook
 

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