May 13, 2013— -- For Kelsey Hough, a tiny peanut is a big problem. So big, in fact, that the 26-year-old student says her life-threatening peanut allergy forced her to abandon her college program.
"If I was to have an anaphylactic reaction, my throat would start to close up and I would stop being able to breathe. I'll start choking," Hough told ABC News affiliate KOMO, displaying the epinephrine auto-injector that can save her life during an emergency. "You stick it in your thigh. And then you have to hold it there for 10 seconds."
During Hough's first year at the University of Washington, Tacoma, signs posted on classroom doors stressed the severity of her allergy. But the signs, which read "peanut/nut-free classroom" in bold, capital letters, have since been removed.
"I felt like I'd just been kicked out of school," Hough said of the school's decision to remove the signs and replace them with a letter, written by Hough, politely asking classmates for their cooperation. "I knew that I wouldn't be safe."
The school claims the original signs were "unenforceable," and that they can't ensure Hough's safety.
"Her allergy is too severe and it's life-threatening," Chancellor Debra Friedman told KOMO. "We cannot keep her safe here, and that breaks my heart. She's a good student."
Hough acknowledged that she wasn't forced out of school because of her allergy.
"They didn't ask me to leave," she said. "But they sure didn't make it possible for me to stay."
People with severe food allergies can qualify for services through the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to Charlotte Collins, vice president of policy and programs for the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America. In December 2012, the Department of Justice reached a settlement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., requiring that the school make reasonable accommodations for a student with a severe allergy to gluten, also known as celiac disease.
"We hope it will give guidance to colleges about what they can and should do for other students with allergies," Collins said.
Mike Wark, a spokesman for the University of Washington, Tacoma, said the school is eager to work with Hough to find a way for her to resume her studies in a safer environment.
"We're very concerned about this student and her safety," he said, noting that the school previously offered Hough dedicated office space that would be safer than the classrooms. "The issue here is that the university can't guarantee her safety in the classroom or anywhere on campus, and putting up a sign that claims an area is peanut-free is misleading. It doesn't mean we can request that other students not bring in certain foods. It's more in the language of the sign."