May 15, 2019 | Office of Attorney General Keith Ellison

Press Release

Attorney General Ellison: Public school districts may not restrict student participation in graduation ceremonies because of unpaid meal debt

Binding opinion issued in response to request from Commissioner of Education, following Legal Aid reports of some districts restricting student participation

May 15, 2019 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today issued a binding written opinion that under Minnesota law, “public schools are prohibited from denying students — who are eligible to receive their diploma — the opportunity to participate in graduation ceremonies due to unpaid meal debts.”

The opinion relies on two Minnesota statutes — the Minnesota Public School Fee Law (Minn. Stat. §§ 123B.34-39) and the Lunch Aid Law (Minn. Stat. § 124D.111, subd. 4) — to support that conclusion.

“Minnesota law supports the principle that living with the dignity and respect that comes from participating in a graduation ceremony cannot be restricted by your ability to afford your life,” Attorney General Ellison said.

The Attorney General’s opinion cites language of the Public School Fee Law that says that “no pupil’s rights or privileges, including the receipt of grades or diplomas, may be denied or abridged for nonpayment of fees,” and that “any practice leading to suspension, coercion, exclusion, withholding of grades or diplomas, or discriminatory action based upon nonpayment of fees denies pupils their right to equal protection and entitled privileges” (emphasis added).

The opinion determines that a charge for a meal by a public school is a “fee,” that participation in a graduation ceremony constitutes a “privilege,” and that the word “including” means that the prohibition on abridging a student’s privileges for nonpayment of fees is not limited to the receipt of grades or diplomas, hence can include participation in a graduation ceremony or related activity.

The opinion further cites language of the Lunch Aid act that states, “The [school] must also ensure that any reminders for payment of outstanding student meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child participating in the school lunch program.”

The opinion is binding. Under Minnesota law (Minn. Stat. § 8.07), the Attorney General’s written opinion on matters relating to public schools “shall be decisive until the question involved shall be decided otherwise by a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Attorney General Ellison issued the opinion in response from a request from Minnesota Commissioner of Education Mary Cathryn Ricker, following a letter from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that reported that some school districts in Minnesota were denying students who owed a meal debt the ability to participate in graduation ceremonies.