Until recently, students in an Edgewater, Fla., elementary school were required to rinse their mouths out twice daily at school to avoid spreading peanut residue to a first-grade student with a severe peanut allergy.
Teachers had to monitor the mouth rinsing and frequent hand washing, and ensure surfaces were continually swabbed with Clorox. The school banned all peanut products, eliminated snacks in the classroom and forbade outside food at holiday parties. A peanut-sniffing dog patrolled the school halls.
All this proved too much for parents, who said the requirements went too far. The battle culminated last Thursday when parents stormed the school, holding up picket signs that read "Our Kids Have Rights Too!"
Most situations don't boil over into angry confrontations as they did in Florida, but changing school policies to accommodate children with allergies is definitely becoming a bone of contention in many school districts.
Food-Allergy Rules Can Become Inconvenient and Costly
Anita Lavine, a mother of two in Seattle, emphasized that she did not wish to be insensitive and was aware that exposure to an allergen could have serious consequences for a child but admitted she resented the extra hassle of the new policies at times.
At one point, her children's school warned her against bringing in anything with eggs to her daughter's classroom, and anything with peanuts to her son's.
"You don't want to be careless and make another child sick, but you really had to stop and think every day what was OK and where it was OK," said Lavine.
Lavine wondered why there couldn't be a better balance between the needs of a few and the enjoyment of many. "You mean you can't have a single egg in the entire school? Really?" she asked.
Other parents complained that allergy-aware policies created extra expense, forcing them to buy pricier foods. Soy butter and sunflower butter, two peanut butter alternatives, can cost up to twice as much as the real thing.
In one school district, the hostility reached a boiling point when the family of a peanut-allergic child was spotted at the local Walmart bakery that used peanut oil. People began to openly question the necessity of a ban on a favorite low-cost food to oblige the one child.
Food-Allergy Policies Save Lives
No one doubts that food allergy-aware policies can be lifesavers for children who depend on them. Aimee Kandrac, whose son Elliot has several severe food allergies, said she does not like inconveniencing other families but without her vigiliance her son could wind up in the hospital, or worse. Her son's school has been generally responsive to his needs, and most of the other parents have been understanding.
But not all.
"This past Valentine's Day another parent called me up to complain that my son had ruined her child's day because the kids weren't allowed to bring candy into school because of him," she recalled. "I politely thanked her for her call and suggested her daughter could enjoy her candy after school. It was all I could do not to hang up the phone on her."
Kendrac said she tried not to come off as an overprotective, hysterical mom but worried that her son might feel ostracized because of his allergies. He was sometimes excluded from birthday parties, because as a friend privately confided, other parents didn't feel like dealing with his food issues.
Lori Sandler's experience with her son's Westchester County, N.Y., school has been much smoother. She praised both the school staff and parents for going out of their way to put protections in place for her 12-year-old son and the other kids with allergies.
"We all have the same goal. We want all of the kids to be included and not adversely affected," she said.
Sandler said that for allergy-aware policies to be as effective and painless as possible, there must be a two way street. She's careful to update the school about her son's changing medical needs (many kids grow into and out of allergies as they age) and has taken on the responsibility of providing the classroom snacks. For its part, the school has set up a nut-and-allergen-free zone in the school cafeteria and communicates thoughtfully with her son's classmates and their families.
There have, however, been a few hiccups along the way. "He once stared at a jar of peanut butter sitting on a shelf in a classroom for more than half a year before he finally told us about it," she related. "He said it was like staring at a loaded gun." It wasn't left there on purpose, but to the Sandlers it underscored their need to stay vigilant.
Food Allergies on the Rise
The prevalence of food allergies among children under the age of 18 is about 4 percent, and has risen about 18 percent in the past decade, according to the most recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. Children with food allergies are two to four times more likely to have other related conditions, such as asthma, and other allergies, compared with children who don't have food allergies. From 2004 to 2006, there were approximately 9,500 hospital discharges a year with a diagnosis related to food allergies among children younger than 18.
"Anyone who has a serious food allergy risks having an anaphylaxis reaction when exposed to the allergen. Therefore, it's reasonable for schools to take the proper precautions," said Dr. Stanley Fineman, a board certified allergist and president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Besides, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, schools are legally obligated to protect children who have allergies against discrimination. Fineman emphasized that policies must be reasonable and practical. Equally important, they need to have scientific validity.
"Rinsing out the mouth is not one of the typical recommendations," he said.
The most updated guidelines for coping with food allergies may be found on the ACAAI website.