How Far Are You Willing to Go to Help Kids with Food Allergies at School?

by Charlotte Hilton Andersen, REDBOOK

It's been hard to miss the media storm this past week that surrounded a Floridian child with a life-threatening peanut allergy. The first grader's allergy is so severe that the school implemented some serious precautions: Students in that classroom have to leave their lunches outside, rinse out their mouths and wash their hands before entering the room. Whatever it takes to protect the life of a child, right? The rules spawned protests by parents demanding the girl be homeschooled. Once it hit the Internet, mob mentality took over with some even suggesting the parents "coat their kids' backpacks in peanut oil" before sending them to school. The backlash from allergy advocates, predictably, has been strong.

As a parent myself of two children in classrooms with similar precautions - one son's classmate is deathly allergic to nuts, dairy, eggs and gluten - I can understand the controversy. When school started last fall and we got the two-page letter detailing all the accommodations we would need to make I'll admit to feeling pretty irritated. If I feed my kids scrambled eggs for breakfast I have to brush their teeth, wash their faces and hands and make them put on a new shirt? Really?? But as the year has gone on I've been surprised at how little it's really impacted our lives. Sure I can't send cupcakes for my son's birthday but he was perfectly happy with rub-on tattoos and those are probably healthier for all the kids anyhow.
As Julie a mom of 2, her eldest with a life-threatening allergy, explains, "It's so much more than just school. You want them to be happy and get to do everything that other kids can. I'm thinking down the road to driver's licenses, college, dating. But it's hard when 100% of my focus has to be on just keeping him alive and reaction-free free. Yes we could take him out of school but there's already so much of life he has to miss out on."

The issue is contentious not because of one much-maligned little girl and her family but because with peanut and other serious allergies on the rise - the Center for Disease Control says they've gone up 18 percent in the past decade - she represents a new wave of ever-increasing child safety precautions. And yet even with the increase, other experts say we are overreacting. Says Dr. Nicholas Christakas, "Of the roughly 3.3 million Americans who have nut allergies, about 150 die from allergy-related causes each year. Compare those figures with the 100 people who are killed yearly by lightning, the 45,000 who die in car crashes and the 1,300 who are killed in gun accidents." He adds, "As a society, our priorities have become seriously skewed, and it's largely a result of fear."

As to what precautions are actually necessary and which are done out of fear - both for the life of the child and for potential legal consequences - doctors and policy makers differ. One problem is that allergic reactions often intensify in a child from one exposure to the next and you can't be sure by how much until another reaction occurs. This risk leads educators to automatically take the most stringent precautions. Another problem is the need for rapid treatment and confusion about what that should entail - while EPI pens, generally considered the first line of treatment, can be life-saving they aren't the immediate cure many people think they are. 20 percent of reactions require a second dosage and every time the pen is used, 911 must be called and the child medically evaluated. In addition, precautions like mouth rinsing and hand washing must be meticulously observed or they run the risk of doing no good at all. Add in the need to educate teachers, other students and the students' parents this can add time and financial burdens to already strapped school systems. Is all this really the schools' responsibility?

One Jezebel commenter sums it up, "I totally agree that it is 'the obligation of the adults around her to make sure she is protected'. Her parents are putting this burden on others though. If your child had such a severe allergy, would you really feel comfortable telling a school-full of children how to eat/drink/live? 'Please rinse your mouth out or my kid will DIE'. This isn't a run-of-the-mill allergy, if she *breathes* peanut she could die. I can't imagine how difficult this must be for her family, but they need to come to terms with how serious this is and not expect others to look out for their kids' near-constant threat of death."

Where do you draw the line between what's best for one child and what's best for the group as a whole? When my son invited his classmate to his birthday party, the child's mom called me with a very polite request that I make sure all the food served was peanut-free. Was this a reasonable request or overstepping?

How do you feel about accommodating kids with peanut allergies in school?
- I will do whatever's asked of me. I'm happy to keep all kids safe.
- I think some parents and schools may be overreacting a little.

Vote here
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Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything