When 15-year-old Danesiah Neal from Houston, Texas, handed over money for her school lunch, she never expected the day to turn out the way it did. Because this one simple action got Neal into some serious trouble.
The story began in 2015 at Houston’s Christa McAuliffe Middle School, part of the Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD). Neal, then 13, lined up for her lunch like she did every day. And when she got to the end of the line, she pulled out a $2 bill to pay for her food.
It was, in fact, the teenager’s grandmother who had given Neal the money to cover the cost of the lunch. However, the teenager was stopped in her tracks by staff manning the canteen till. They wouldn’t accept the money – but why not?
To her surprise, Neal was told that the money was fake. As she had no reason to believe that the bill wasn’t legitimate, the hungry teen couldn’t understand the accusation. Then what happened next was unbelievable.
Not only was the teenager denied her lunch, but she was also hauled into questioning over the money. According to Neal, staff at her school gave the $2 bill to the authorities. “Then they sent me to the police office. A police officer said I could be in big trouble,” she told ABC News in April 2016.
Subsequently, school officials got Neal’s grandmother involved. Sharon Kay Joseph received a phone call from staff asking if she had given the money to her granddaughter. “She’s never in trouble, so I was nervous going in there,” Joseph told ABC News.
The dispute over the small amount of money didn’t go away, and the investigation continued. A campus officer even went as far as tracking down the store that had originally given the bill to Neal’s grandmother.
Meanwhile, Neal was informed that she might be in for a third-degree felony charge for forgery. So if successfully convicted, the teenager faced a potential jail sentence of two to ten years for the crime.
After the officer had hunted down the convenience store from which the bill originated, he continued the investigation even further. Eventually, the investigator tracked the money all the way back to the bank, where he finally found the truth.
So, what was the truth behind the supposedly forged $2 bill? It wasn’t fake at all. So why all the fuss? What was it that had made Neal’s accusers believe that the money was counterfeit?
The problem was that the bill was from 1953. Because it was so ancient, the note was not compatible with the pen that the canteen worker used to distinguish between real and fake money. Yes, it was this that started the frenzy in the first place, only for Neal to ultimately be proven innocent.
So what happened next? Well, although Neal’s grandmother was given back the $2 bill, she didn’t receive an apology for all of the commotion and accusations. Understandably, then, she was very angry at the way the situation was handled.
What riled her the most was that Neal had been taken out of school. “They pulled Danesiah out of lunch and she didn’t eat lunch that day because they took her money,” she told ABC News.
Amazingly, this case wasn’t the only time kids at school have been accused of dealing in counterfeit money. In fact, between 2013 and 2014, eight separate investigations were carried out involving pupils at Fort Bend ISD.
A recent incident involving a 13-year-old boy from Texas went as far as an arrest. Like Neal, he was suspected of having used a fake bill – in this case $10 – to pay for his lunch. But after an investigation, it transpired that his bill was, indeed, fake.
The boy was a well-behaved student with good grades, but he was still arrested when he arrived at school the following day. Police even handcuffed the then-7th grader and took him away in a patrol car.
Despite his parents trying to pay the school back for their son’s mistake, he was later charged with a third-degree felony. Ironically, the boy was actually entitled to free school meals.
His lawyer, Mani Nezami, told ABC News that the case hasn’t gone to court just yet, but his client “could face years in jail or prison.” In the meantime, he’s been attending a different school, even though he hasn’t yet been proven guilty.
While it’s true the boy was indeed carrying a counterfeit bill, you could argue that there’s every possibility that the 13-year-old wasn’t aware that it was fake. Indeed, a lot of young kids don’t handle bills very often and so may not be able to spot a fake one.
So these two separate cases beg the question of whether it’s right to come down so heavily on children regarding counterfeit money. While it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed, to many it seems unfair to disrupt a child’s education over something that they may not even have done intentionally.