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How far should a school go to protect a kid with a peanut allergy?

March 24, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
How far must schools go to accommodate the needs of a special needs child?

In Edgewater, Florida this week, a group of angry parents picketed a school protesting safety measures to protect a first-grader with peanut allergies. Among the precautions taken by the school district was ordering the girl's classmates to wash their hands and rinse out their mouths before they go into the classroom. The teacher regularly wiped down the desks with bleach wipes. Over the spring break, a peanut-sniffing dog was taken through the school to detect peanut residue.

Parents protesting the measures said the hand-washing routine can take as much as half an hour for the 20-some first graders during the school day and that takes away educational time. They seemed to think the kids themselves were being wiped down with bleach and that kids couldn't eat peanut butter snacks anymore because of their allergic classmate.

The school administration said it's all a misunderstanding. Handwashing doesn't take half an hour a day. Kids can still have peanut butter for lunch, but they can't take their lunch boxes into the classroom. It goes on a separate lunch cart. The teacher banned food snacks from school celebrations in favor of arts and crafts because she wants to emphasize healthy choices. The little girl eats in a separate room with a teacher, away from the other kids who might be eating peanut butter. The principal did acknowledge that it might be a bit much to ask kids to rinse their mouths out with water every time they walk into the classroom, so they don't have to do that anymore. The kids do still have to wash their faces and their hands every time they go into the room.

OK, then. That sounds a lot like what other schools, including ones locally, do when there is a student with a peanut allergy in the building. Lots of schools have peanut-free tables. Hopefully this school's explanation will put an end to parents picketing a 6-year-old and demanding that she be kept home from school.

On the other hand, the whole ruckus does raise some red flags for me. This school apparently did a really poor job with communication. The situation got so far out of control because the teacher and administration didn't explain from the beginning what they were doing and why and failed to address parent concerns.

The parents of the girl feel that the other parents are unfairly ganging up on her and said she's already restricted from doing a lot of things. They just want to make school as safe as possible for her. That's completely understandable. On the other hand, this little girl doesn't live in a peanut-free world and never will. Making her school a peanut-free zone or requiring her classmates to take such stringent safety measures could give her a false sense of security. The girl will have to be taught to be always on her guard, to remove herself from areas that might have peanuts and tell her classmates about her allergies. She'll have to carry an epi pen with her everywhere she goes.

There's no way to make her world completely safe short of making the school peanut-free, which could infringe on the rights of other students. As a vegetarian kid I lived on peanut butter at that age. It doesn't seem fair to prevent other kids from eating a cheap dietary staple because one child in the school is allergic.

If she is so allergic that even smelling peanut residue could kill her, I would probably consider home-schooling.


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