Peanut Butter and Deadly Taunts

Late last spring, 14-year-old Sarah VanEssendelft of Mastic, N.Y., experienced bullying worthy of a teen movie.

"There was a group of five girls ... and they decided they didn't want me sitting at their lunch table anymore," said VanEssendelft. To get her to leave, they all brought in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

For VanEssendelft, it might as well have been arsenic.

Two weeks later, a boy in the back of her class opened up a peanut butter cup. The smell was enough to trigger VanEssendelft's peanut allergy and send her to the emergency room with breathing problems.

"My throat felt tight and my lips were getting really swollen, really fast," said VanEssendelft. "I looked like Angelina Jolie."

On the one hand, mean tricks or sneaking candy looks like mild behavioral problems to school administrators. On the other hand, given VanEssendelft's serious peanut allergy, those sandwiches might very well have been weapons.

Allergy As Target

Severe bullying and food allergies have emerged as troublesome issues for educators in recent years.

The number of reported food allergies doubled among young children in the last five years, according to researchers at the University of Chicago.

In response, legislators in New York and five other states have passed laws to protect food-allergic kids. Educators in some East Coast cities have outright banned peanuts in elementary schools.

But even with restrictions in place, schools have to find new ways to control the ever-growing problem of bullies.

Despite recent high profile school shootings, the National School Safety Center reports school violence has actually decreased since 1993.

But bullying is on the rise. Between 1999 and 2003, the NSSC reported an increase of the student population who were bullied across grades 6-12.

As VanEssendelft knows, when bullies target food allergies, kids and schools face a serious problem. After the peanut butter cup reaction, some of VanEssendelft's classmates didn't believe that her peanut allergy was triggered by smell.

"They said, 'oh, you just want attention, there's no way you can be allergic to the smell, this isn't true,'" said VanEssendelft. The five girls then held a meeting in the bathroom.

Luckily, VanEssendelft got wind of the secret conference when one girl pulled her out of class to warn her.

"She said, 'You can't come to lunch tomorrow ... because they're going to have a peanut party with everything peanut they can find, to watch your face blow up,'" VanEssendelft recounted.

Her family reported the plot to administrators who, according to the VanEssendelfts, said, since the girls had never been in trouble before, the school wouldn't punish them or search their lockers.

The principal of VanEssendelft's school did not respond to repeated phone calls and messages requesting an interview.

In Children's Minds

VanEssendelft reports that she grew up with these girls, attended birthday parties and play dates, and had always kept a careful eye out for peanuts. Yet, still, the girls tried to test her allergy.

"It's a bizarre concept in general: how can a food hurt you? Everyone eats food," said Dr. Scott Sicherer, associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Sicherer, who has conducted workshops for teens with food allergies, found most teenagers have been bullied because of their allergy in the past.

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