Many of you, both on this blog and on my Facebook page, have been contacting me about the Florida peanut allergy school protests. Obviously, this is a very upsetting story to all parents of children with any food allergies. Peanut allergies trigger such a strong response among all parents because peanut butter and peanut candies still have such a prominent place in our school culture and because peanut allergies are the number one cause of food allergy-related deaths.
Any parent sending a child off to school with life-threatening peanut allergies has fears for a reason. Still, to me school is a right of all children, not just those fortunate enough not to have food allergies. And every child, allergies or not, has a right to an equal education. I don't want class time to suffer, either, for any student. As a parent, I want school to be about school. So why is it so often about food????? Cut down on the frequency of non-lunchtime eating and a lot of this problem is solved.
Education is the key word for me. I have a difficult time supporting what parents in this case feel are other "rights" being violated, such as the "right" to eat birthday treats in the classroom or the right to certain foods at class parties. These are non-curriculum activities, so while these practices trigger extremely strong emotions in people on both sides of the issue, I don't know that eating a cupcake at school during class time is an actual "right."
The latest news is that parents at the Florida school are now asking that the girl with the allergy be kept at home and home schooled. I was glad to see the school comment that this is against the law to force this on someone but the entire story has me (and many of you) very troubled. Peanut allergies are serious, yes, but some basic procedures will greatly cut down on the risk of reactions. Also, under the law, the child cannot be forced into homeschooling. I know that emotions run high when it comes to our children, but I would ask those protesting if they would also protest accommodations made for children with cancer, diabetes or asthma?
The thing about food allergies is that it does require cooperation from others. And many times, people don't want to give it. Food allergies sometimes reveal what we are willing to do for other people. Some generous individuals want to help all they can; some want to hang on tight to their food "rights" and not give an inch. It's tough.
I'm not sure why the firestorm erupted at this particular school. It's unclear what, if any, peanut allergy protection measures were in place before. It seems that the idea of frequent hand-washing and twice a day mouth-rinsing gave rise to parents protesting that this will take too much time out of the school day.
I feel that I live on both sides of this issue because I have two children, one with severe, life-threatening nut allergies and one without food allergies at all. I do understand why some parents who don't understand this issue may question accommodations for peanut allergies even if it hurts me to see children with this serious medical condition stigmatized and often vilified.
When food allergy accommodation at school is successful, this is usually the result of teamwork from the allergic families, the school and the education of the entire parent population. If the picketing parents would have been given a chance to attend a meeting or if they were sent home notes and given a chance to speak to the administrators of the school (again, I don't know that they weren't given this; it's unclear from news reports) then would they have reacted so negatively and so strongly?
I'm hoping that the new FAAMA guidelines (to be implemented by the end of this year) will help give schools some direction in terms of how to have food allergy protocols in place.
On a positive note, I'm aware, both in my own life and through others' stories, of amazing help from wonderful teachers and effective food allergy procedures put into place through the work of dedicated parents and informed schools. It does take work and it does take cooperation, but we can keep our kids safe at school while they learn, grow and thrive.
Here is a Food Allergy Back-to-School Checklist that I published some years ago. The rules still hold true and I still abide by this list each year.
Please also see this link to a Chicago Tribune article about food allergies at school.