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Mom sues Michigan district to ban peanut products from son's school
July 30, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
How far should schools have to go to accommodate the needs of a child with a life-threatening condition like a peanut allergy?
The parents of a 10-year-old boy in Michigan are suing his school district in an attempt to require it to ban all peanuts and nut products from the school. The mother, Kathy Williams, told a CBS Detroit station in April that the Livonia Public School District has refused to change its practices, citing fear of a backlash from other parents. The boy, Nick, has been required to eat his lunch separately in the school office and has been bullied by other children because of his peanut allergy, said his mother. A spokesman for the school district said they have done their best to accommodate the student's needs.
Nick's parents are undoubtedly trying to prevent a scenario like one that happened on Friday night at a campsite in California. A 13-year-old girl died when she mistakenly bit into a Rice Krispy treat that contained peanuts, according to The Daily Mail. The girl, Natalie Giorgi, spit it out immediately but still went into anaphylactic shock. Her father, a doctor, plunged an epinephrine shot into her three times and she was taken to a hospital, but they were unable to revive her. The girl knew about her severe peanut allergy and had been taught to be careful about what she ate, but all the efforts made to protect her weren't sufficient. Her twin sister also has a peanut allergy.
I believe that food allergies fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so schools and other public places are probably required to make reasonable accommodations for kids like Nick and poor Natalie. The question is what is "reasonable." Is it reasonable to ban all peanut butter (or eggs or milk or other products) that might do serious harm to one child in the school from the entire building or is a peanut-free table, standard at many schools, sufficient? Should Camp Sacramento, the camp the Giorgi family was staying at, have been required to ban all peanut products and vet all homemade treats for signs of peanuts? At what point does the reasonable become the unreasonable?
In Nick's case, it sounds like his allergy could well be as severe as Natalie's was, which might be why the school principal has had him eat lunch in a separate room. In similar cases, schools often let the allergic child pick a "lunch buddy" to eat lunch with him in the office so he doesn't have to eat lunch all alone. Those sound like reasonable accommodations to me. If Nick is being bullied, clearly the school needs to put a stop to it as they would with any other bullying.
But the parents of Nick's classmates apparently object to the idea of banning peanuts from the entire school to protect one student and I can also understand their point of view. As a vegetarian child Nick's age, I lived on peanut butter sandwiches and milk. It was the only reasonably healthy thing that the school cafeteria served that I could eat. Peanuts are also a major source of vegetarian protein.
More to the point, it is impossible to create an entirely peanut-free environment anywhere. If a child is led to believe that his school is safe, he might become less vigilant about what he eats and take longer to learn how to manage his own illness.
Despite recent media coverage, peanut allergies are also relatively rare, affecting about 1 percent of the population. About 150 people die of reactions to peanuts in the United States each year, 50 more than the 100 Americans who are struck each year by lightning, according to an article at MedicalDaily.com Allergies to other foods, such as eggs or shellfish, actually affect more people.
What do you think Nick's school should be required to do?
Update: Kathy Williams contacted me and indicated that some facts in the original blog are inaccurate. She said that her lawsuit alleges that her son's school district has violated a Section 504 plan and the child's individual education plan (IEP). In the phone call on Thursday, she also said that the incidents of death in the United States due to peanut allergies and other food allergies are greater than 150 per year. However, various news sources report an estimated 150 to 200 deaths per year due to all food allergies in the United States. Peanut allergy is deadliest. The incidence of peanut allergy also appears to have increased in the last several years, based on the reports.
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