Protecting Kids With Food Allergies At School Isn’t Just The Nice Thing To Do, It’s The Law

From peanut-free classrooms to nut-free campuses, American school administrators are doing what they can to protect children with life-threatening food allergies, but some parents are annoyed that they can’t send nuts to school. Some points need to be made clearer to these parents. These parents, who seem to be the minority, are upset that they have to check food labels on snacks intended to be eaten in a nut-free classroom. Some of these parents assert that they have picky eaters who only want to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They question why the school and the parents of children with food allergies feel that they get to decide what their own children can’t eat at school.

Huffington Post writer Heather Spohr wrote a compassionate piece on the subject of nut-free classrooms and nut-free tables in which she proclaimed how proud she was of her small daughter who seemed to understand that kids can and do die from food allergen exposure.

“Kids should know that the adults in their schools will keep them safe. I shouldn’t have to worry that you’ll speed through a crosswalk while we’re in it (because your child has the right to be on time to school just like mine, right?), and another mom shouldn’t have to worry that your child might accidentally kill hers at lunch. What has happened to empathy? What has happened to our village?”

According to Food Allergy Research & Education, close to two children in every classroom likely have a food allergy. Of course, not all children with a food allergy suffer from a life-threatening food allergy, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that food allergies among children have increased by approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, and that figure is still increasing, and that no one exactly knows why.

It’s not just the U.S. either.

“More than 17 million Europeans have a food allergy, and hospital admissions for severe reactions in children have risen seven-fold over the past decade, according to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI),” FARE states. This problem isn’t going to go away. It’s getting more severe. School administrators are trying hard to keep children safe, while a small portion of parents are either in denial that foods can cause death to these children, or they believe it’s not their responsibility.

I will admit: If my daughter’s food allergies were diagnosed as life threatening, I would take no chances by sending her to school. The thing is, though I am in a fantastic position to homeschool my children if they needed to be homeschooled, not every family is afforded this liberty, and children are guaranteed a right to a free public education in the United States.

“Fine,” some parents say, “separate the children with food allergies into a different wing or a different school.”

Unfortunately for people with children who only like to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, in the United States, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of this law, children with severe food allergies legally must be accommodated at their school and part of the ADA also specifies that segregating children with disabilities is not actually acceptable.

As for the parent who demands that their children eat nuts during the approximately 35 hours of each 168 hour week, perhaps a separate room could be added to the school in which picky eaters could munch on their Jif sandwiches. Alternately, parents of picky eaters could try to appeal to their lawmakers to get “picky eating” added to the list of disabilities protected under the ADA. I’m not sure exactly how schools would manage the balance between what would be two conflicting disabilities, but it seems unlikely that being a picky eater would ever be considered a disability in itself unless every peanut butter alternative available on store shelves were tried first and said children began dying or significantly suffering from not eating nut products while at school.

I have to wonder though, how does a child who “will eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches” not suffer from malnutrition? How does that work? Do they eat peanut butter toast for breakfast and peanut butter quesadillas for dinner? Do they actually eat applesauce sometimes? A Gogurt maybe? Maybe they drink a nutrition-supplementing shake sometimes? How would a child stay healthy if they could eat nothing but peanut butter sandwiches?

According to the CDC, only eight foods account for nine out of 10 food allergies: cow’s milk, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans, and wheat. Peanut allergies seem to be the biggest threat of these eight. Moreover, true systemic reactions from airborne peanut protein are exceptionally rare. In general, peanut-free classrooms are implemented to avoid accidental ingestion. So, while non-supportive parents ask how these children expect to live in the real world with their food allergies, that’s really not a legitimate argument in most cases. These allergic children are too small to carry the burden of protecting their own lives. It’s that simple. We have crossing guards at the street to keep them safe, as pointed out in the Huffington Post article, and since we don’t have a peanut patrol in every allergic child’s classroom, the rooms are simply designated “nut-free.”

Would these same parents prefer that the school pay for a full time paraprofessional for each allergic child in order to keep these children safe? If parents keep refusing to comply with the peanut policies, it could come to that. A parapro earns just under $12 an hour. That could end up seriously cutting into the school’s funds for technology, teachers, or books, but if it’s a necessary accommodation (because parents can’t follow the rules), then the school will end up having to provide it. Not sending nuts to school could technically save the school about $160 per class room each day, when you consider the potential need for an adult supervisor to follow each allergic child around, if parents keep accidentally sending nuts into classrooms.

The ADA is not a guideline, it’s a law.

While I haven’t heard threats of legal action against parents who have chosen not to comply with nut-free zones, these peanut-providing parents could be opening themselves up to litigation if they deliberately send an allergen into an allergen-free zone. Last year, in my daughter’s class, another student was sent with a pack of Planters peanuts for her snack. To me, this screams direct defiance and a lack of compassion, and thankfully for the boy who was severely allergic to peanuts in my daughter’s classroom, their teacher had that snack in her hand before even one corner of that plastic wrapper could be torn.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America explains that, in both the ADA and Section 504, “a person with a disability is described as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or is regarded as having such impairments.”

“Breathing, eating, working and going to school are ‘major life activities.’ Asthma and allergies are still considered disabilities under the ADA, even if symptoms are controlled by medication.”

Marie Trottier, Harvard University’s Administrator of Disability Services, explains that it’s not just a matter of being considerate to people with food allergies.

“Changes depend as much on interpersonal consideration as they do on legal rights,” she says. “It shouldn’t be uncommon for people with asthma and allergies to get the same respect for their needs as people with more visible disabilities.”

See, while it may not be the village’s responsibility to check the labels on the snacks it sends to school, it is the school’s legal obligation to accommodate this disability, and our schools simply can not afford some of the alternatives to simply going nut-free.

[Photo via Pixabay]