A recent report of a 13-year-old spiking his peanut-allergic classmate's lunch may highlight a dangerous gap in food allergy education in schools, experts say.
An eighth-grader in Lexington, Ky., was arrested Sunday on felony wanton endangerment charges for allegedly putting peanut butter cookie crumbs in the lunch box of a classmate with a severe peanut allergy.
"The contaminated lunch box could have resulted in a significant allergic reaction — potentially life-threatening, depending on the child's history," says Dr. Kathy Sheerin, of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, in Atlanta.
Under the Kentucky statue for wanton endangerment, a person is guilty "when, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, he wantonly engages in conduct which creates a substantial danger of death or serious physical injury to another person."
Whatever the courts decide in this case, peanut allergies are no trivial matter. Sheerin says peanut allergies are one of the most common food allergies, and by far the most fatal.
Fayette County schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall told the Associated Press that the boy's food allergy was well-known among the students at Morton Middle School.
But, experts say informing classmates of a food allergy doesn't necessarily mean all children will understand the risk for a deadly reaction, or refrain from using the allergy against the child.
Dr. Scott Sicherer, associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute in New York City, has run workshops for teens with food allergies.
Sicherer says children may contaminate an allergic classmate's food by accident because they were unaware of the danger or they could do it out of curiosity, wanting to see the allergic reaction.
"Or a child could very well know that the person would be in danger and they'd like to really get that person," says Sicherer.
The School's Part
News of the Kentucky incident only reinforced food allergists' and food allergy advocates' mantra on school involvement.
"It demonstrates that having an allergy is a serous thing," says Sicherer. "One of the tenants of managing an allergy in the school setting is that bullying has to be taken seriously."
In this case, food allergic parents and advocates may be fighting a battle on two fronts. Not only are peanut allergies on the rise, so is school bullying.
The number of reported food allergies has doubled among young children in the last five years, according to researchers at the University of Chicago. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reports 2.2 million school children currently have a food allergy.
Between 1999 and 2003, the National School Safety Center reported a consistent increase in bullying incidences across grades 6-12.
While food allergy advocates have not studied statistics of bullying combined with peanut allergy, they've heard enough reports from the community to start up peer-safety plans called PAL, or Protect a Life.
"We hear these stories all the time," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylactic Network. "The child is called peanut-kid, or the classmates wait outside the classroom and chase them with peanut butter sandwiches."
Who Should Learn?
Parents often focus most on educating their own food-allergic children about their allergy. But Munoz-Furlong and allergists say educating peers — however difficult it might be — can protect food-allergic children in many ways.
Dr. Hugh Windom, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, has seen children as young as two develop an awareness of their food allergies. "It's amazing, actually 2-year-olds will be aware," says Windom. "If a 2-year old is allergic to milk, he'll often push the milk away."
"So, a 13-year-old will know: when you've had swollen lips or something, you'll know what to do," says Windom. Peanut allergic adults and teens know to carry around an EpiPen, a self-administered shot of adrenaline, to save their lives during a serious anaphylactic allergic reaction.
Yet, even the most aware children and adults could use the watchful eye of a peer who's educated about their allergy. Windom says it's easy to bite into a brownie with nuts, or another food with an allergen.
"These kids don't have a sixth sense, they don't know where peanuts are at all times," says Windom.