Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nuts to school?

A child in a Florida school has a life-threatening peanut allergy--and parents of other students there are finding the whole thing difficult:
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Some public school parents in Edgewater, Florida, want a first-grade girl with life-threatening peanut allergies removed from the classroom and home-schooled, rather than deal with special rules to protect her health, a school official said.

"That was one of the suggestions that kept coming forward from parents, to have her home schooled. But we're required by federal law to provide accommodations. That's just not even an option for us," said Nancy Wait, spokeswoman for the Volusia County School District.

Wait said the 6-year-old's peanut allergy is so severe it is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To protect the girl, students in her class at Edgewater Elementary School are required to wash their hands before entering the classroom in the morning and after lunch, and rinse out their mouths, Wait said, and a peanut-sniffing dog checked out the school during last week's spring break.

Wait said school leaders will meet this week with parents to address concerns and try to halt inaccurate rumors that children's mouths were being wiped with disinfectant.
My first thought upon reading this article was that it's simply amazing to me that in my lifetime homeschooling has gone from being perceived as a suspicious activity engaged in only by hippies, government conspiracy theorists, and ultra-religious cultist types to being so acceptable that mainstream public school parents would suggest it as an option for the parents of a child with life-threatening allergies.

My second was that I do have some sympathy for this little girl and her parents. They may be unable to homeschool, or be unwilling to send their child the message that her very scary allergy is a reason for her to be isolated from other people. That's not something you want a six-year-old to believe.

But my third thought was that overall my sympathies lie with the parents of the other children in the classroom. It is one thing to require students not to bring peanuts or peanut products in their lunches, a reasonable accommodation that is made in plenty of places for children with these allergies; it is another if the child's allergies are so severe that the traces of a food processed in the same plant as peanuts (as many foods are) must be eliminated by careful hand-washing and mouth-rinsing when the children enter the classroom in the morning and before the children return to the classroom after lunch. This, in a way, places the child's life and health in the hands--literally--of a group of her peers and a busy teacher; one slip-up, one child whose hands don't get washed thoroughly enough, one nut-containing snack from home unconsciously left in a jacket pocket, and this child could actually die.

And what about the copy repairman who shows up with a Payday (tm) bar in his pocket? What about the visitor to the school who has been eating sunflower seeds--processed in peanut oil--before making a stop at the child's classroom? What about the school library book a child checked out and read at home, his hands leaving peanut-butter smudges on some of the pages? There are just so many ways for a tragedy to occur in a situation like this.

If you think I'm exaggerating, consider this tragic story:

CHICAGO (CBS) - The family of a Chicago Public Schools student, who died last year after suffering an allergic reaction to peanuts at her school, is suing the Chinese restaurant that supplied the food.

Thomas A. Edison Regional Gifted Center student Katelyn Carlson, 13, died after eating peanuts inside food her seventh grade teacher ordered from Chinese Inn Restaurant for a Dec. 17, 2010, class holiday party, according to a suit filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

The suit claims the teacher told an employee of the Chinese Inn Restaurant the food was for a class party and students in the class had peanut allergies and the restaurant agreed to provide food that was free of peanut oils, peanut derivatives and peanut flavorings.

But officials said in January that the food might have been cooked in peanut oil, despite the teacher’s instructions.

Carlson was pronounced dead at 5:40 p.m. Dec. 17, 2010, at Children’s Memorial Hospital, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. An autopsy determined she died from anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction) to food allergy and her death was ruled an accident. [Linked paragraph in original--E.M.]
This recent article contains the information that lab testing on the Chinese food served showed that it contained trace amounts of peanut products. Trace amounts were, apparently, all it took to cause this tragic death.

The young lady in this sad story was thirteen, and had been dealing with her allergy all her life. But the young lady in the Florida school is only six--is she supposed to have better awareness of her environment and its unique dangers to her than a girl more than twice her age?

I know the parents in Florida are trying to do what is best for their daughter, and I hope everything will be resolved in a way that benefits her and puts her safety first. That said, if I had a child with so severe an allergy, I would want to teach her at home. I couldn't imagine getting the kind of phone call Miss Carlson's parents might have gotten on that terrible day when being in school proved fatal to their child.


Anonymous said...

Blogger saved me from myself, having written an entirely uncharitable comment that failed to post. I pray for families who endure illnesses of all kinds, it is agonizing. If I write my own post about it, it might be titled "What the State Cannot (should not, must not) Do".

Red Cardigan said...

I will look forward to reading it!

I know it must seem to parents dealing with these situations that the rest of us don't get it--and maybe that's true. Still, I worry about a little girl in such a scary situation.

Casey said...

I sympathize with all parties involved. Food allergies are horrible to deal with let alone one so severe. I am fortunate that my son's food allergies are minor and other than being asthma triggers or make his mouth itchy, don't cause much harm. We still avoid those things in case the next reaction could be worse. I cannot imagine the fear the parents have that their child might be exposed to peanuts or products contacting peanuts. Like you I hope this is resolved for the benefit of all involved.

Carrie said...

What a terrible thing, for all involved! You'd think (hope!) that with all the advances we have in medicine, they'd come up with SOMETHING to prevent a food allergy from becoming so crippling and so potentially deadly! I pray it is soon.

I sympathize with all involved. Prayers for seemingly impossible situations such as these!

Anonymous said...

You are right, you don't get it. I started even reading this blog when many of you were extremely rude to a friend of mine who is struggling with her son's wheat allergy and hoping to allow a rice host in the eucharist. Theology aside, many comments were spiteful venom heaped on a mother who is struggling with her son's life threatening allergy. It's not an "intolerence" like Celiac disease. No "pain" and "discomfort", but instead, "closed airways" and "death". That child is allergic to dairy, wheat, nuts of all kinds, you name it. He once broke out into hives after his dad kissed his cheek. They think it was caused by the cheese he had eaten at lunch many hours before. They can't go to most restaurants. They don't go to other people's homes without major recon. It is hard on everyone to mainstream these children. I do feel for the other parents at the school. It is burdensome and scary to be so responsible for something that you don't fully understand. I think that the children going through the ritual of washing and rinsing in order to have this child in the school is only for the best. WAY better than not doing it and having the child die in front of them all. The child I know is at a Catholic School. The family struggled with whether or not to home school, but in the end, they decided that you can't shield them from everything. They have to learn to live in this world. All you can do is educate, and have lots of epi-pens available. Not everyone in our school has to go peanut free. The allergy kid sits at a special table, and the kids who sit with him are "approved" by the mother, who knows that the parents won't pack anything dangerous. The kids all want to sit at his table. They appreciate that special steps must be taken, but no one minds. There has been some backlash, especially at first, but the mother is extraordinarily accommadating, and brings in special treats for him so that he can have something when all the other kids are having birthday cake, or something.
I don't want to get too off topic, but knowing a family going through these allergies makes me think that the families who are picketing the school mentioned in Red's article are selfish, awful people. Does it really hurt to wash your hands twice per day and swish your mouth with water? Those are actually good habits! My son's preschool required the children to wash their hands with soap upon arrival. For GERMS! No one picketed. The kids did as they were told, and probably had a lot less sickness.

Homeschooling is not always an option, and it's not always the best option even when it's feasible.


bearing said...

Don't forget, too, that if she's covered under the ADA the school does not have leeway to decide for itself what accommodations are "reasonable" or "unreasonable" with regard to the girl. If the school and the girl's parents do not come to an agreement, a judge will make the call.

The picketing parents don't legally have a say either -- though perhaps if it comes to that, they could file a brief with the court advising it how the accommodations for the girl's disability have affected their children's education.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Frankly, I would say that there is a limit to how much 99.999999% of the population should be expected to revise their entire life on account of rather rare allergies.

EITHER we should ban any substance that one or more people are allergic to from being eaten, used, handled, by ANYONE, ever, or,

We have to acknowledge that people with severe allergies need to take special precautions and isolate themselves to some degree, and maybe they are going to suddenly die unexpectedly.

As the Chinese restaurant incident shows, even a trace of peanut getting into the supply chain can endanger an allergic person, without the knowledge (or culpability) of anyone down the line, including the restaurant.

So, the effort to "include" the child by requesting "peanut free food" should not have been made. The rest of the class should have their Chinese good, and the child who, through no fault of their own, can't risk it, may have something they CAN safely eat.

The world isn't perfect, and there is only so far we should go to make it perfect.

Remember the boy who lived in the bubble in the living room... and when doctors finally risked letting him out, died soon after? That wasn't fair either, but should a public school be placed in a bubble, and every student attending it take a disinfecant bath and pass through a vacuum chamber every day, so he doesn't have to be "isolated"?

Enough is enough. We all do what we can, but we don't reshape our entire world around an unfortunate condition.

bearing said...

"That wasn't fair either, but should a public school be placed in a bubble, and every student attending it take a disinfecant bath and pass through a vacuum chamber every day, so he doesn't have to be "isolated"?"

It has to make accommodations that are reasonable as set out in the Americans with Disabilities Act and relevant precedent. The courts are engaged in working out the specifics.

"We all do what we can, but we don't reshape our entire world around an unfortunate condition."

Sure we do. Ever seen how many wheelchair ramps they have on buildings these days? Ever seen the difference between a modern restroom and one in a really old building that hasn't been remodeled recently?

Bathilda said...

Siarlys, you are correct as usual, but only to a point. The parents at this school say that washing hands twice per day is taking valuable educational time out of the day.... really? (MSNBC has been looping this story all day) Shouldn't they be washing their hands anyway? Don't they already have bathroom and drink breaks? This is just about people supposing that they are being put upon. May God grant that these people never be exeptions to any rule. SUre, there is a limit to what people can do because of an extraordinary person, but I don't think in this case, that limit has been reached.

texasmama said...

As a mom with peanut allergic children, I just have to say that I was glad we were already homeschooling when they were diagnosed with this life threatening problem. I was also grateful to be Catholic, because I read so many testimonies from parents who just thought it awful that their child would have to be denied the life of "whatever you want whenever you want". Instead, I felt like we had a leg up in that we can tell our sons that all of us have some cross to bear and sacrifices to make in order to get to Heaven, and they have something to sacrifice built right into themselves. They won't ever be able to eat foods with the abandon that the average person can. Anyway, it is tough on other people to try to accomodate others with this allergy, but I have found that my friends are very willing to make accomodations because they believe every life is sacred and if a peanut can rip that life away then so long peanuts!! When you live a life of "whatever I want, whenever I want it" and something comes along that impedes that life, then you get pickets about peanutbutter. Crazy.

Anonymous said...

You are right, you don't get it. I started even reading this blog when many of you were extremely rude to a friend of mine who is struggling with her son's wheat allergy and hoping to allow a rice host in the eucharist. Theology aside, many comments were spiteful venom heaped on a mother who is struggling with her son's life threatening allergy.

The regular commenters here are on the whole good people. I recall the rice host posts and don't recall any genuine rudeness of venom from the regulars (perhaps some hit-and-run commentors were, but I don't recall any of those either). I do recall good fair explanations that rice hosts are not just illicit, but invalid as well (which they are), plus reminders that there are perfectly valid options that don't include rice hosts.

JMB said...

30 years ago my little brother went to a New England boarding school and one of his classmates died of a severe reaction to a peanut allergy. It was a Saturday night and all the boys on the floor ordered take out Chinese food. The child, whose parents were both doctors, did not know that he could not have Chinese food. Like most horrific episodes, a few things went wrong as well - the dorm master was out, the child could not find the epi-pen, it took a while to get an ambulance to show up. All these mistakes led to a child's death.

I guess my point is, tragedies happen all the time. You can do "everything" right, and still a mistake happens, something is overlooked. And in the case of my brother's classmate - parents were asking "why was this child sent away to boarding school?". I don't know what the answer is.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Bearing, I'm a former paratransit driver. I am thoroughly familiar with the availability, and in some situations, the continuing unavailability, of wheelchair ramps. I had many good friends among my passengers, even those who, for various understandable reasons, can be demanding at times. I also recall a few who were no more or less spoiled brats than many ambulatory individuals who think the whole world is centered around them.

Adding a ramp where there is already a stairway is a "reasonable accommodation." Hiring a man with Tourette's syndrome as a retail clerk is NOT a reasonable accommodation. The last judicial ruling I ran across said "We see no reason why a business owner should subject their customers to such language, albeit involuntary."

BOTH ends of this tug of war are characterized to some extent by people who want what they want, when they want it. And NONE of us are entitled to that, or likely to have it. Arranging for a cafeteria to prepare peanut-free food is a reasonable accommodation. Expecting thousands of children for whom peanuts are an affordable source of nutrition to banish it from their lives is not. (Incidentally, while not allergic, I get a mildly nauseous response to the smell of peanuts or peanut butter, and have never eaten it in my life).

People who have a disability have a DISability. Its not fair, but they have it. They, and the rest of us, all have to deal with it. Nobody gets to expect others to pay all the prices.

I suspect that if school authorities had the spine to go to court, instead of taking the district's attorneys word for it that the cheapest way to go is to accommodate, they would find that there ARE limits to "reasonable accommodation," and the first interpretation out of the mouth of the local disability rights attorney is not always what the law really says.

Anonymous said...

"BOTH ends of this tug of war are characterized to some extent by people who want what they want, when they want it."

THIS! (Cottage Child claps palm to forehead, realizing that she and Siarlys are of the same mind on more than she imagined...are these the end times?)

The nature of the accommodation is unreasonable, because it is expected to be extended beyond the public building - by insisting that a highly allergic child is suitable for mainstream interaction is insisting that every family involved be employed as that child's de facto parent. That is beyond reason, and beyond the scope of what The State, which has proven itself a very poor parent and a very poor substitute for the Church, despite what many demand of it, can or should do.

Red Cardigan said...

One other thing to bear in mind is not only are all families being asked, as the Cottage Child puts it so well, to act as parents to this child, but if the unthinkable happens--if the school misses something or a child inadvertently brings an item he doesn't realize was made in the same factory that processes peanuts or an adult shows up to pick up a child not realizing the toddler's snacks are a cross-contaminant, etc.--what happens if the worst happens?

Not only does everyone bear the guilt for having caused the child's death, but the parents are quite likely to sue the school, the child or adult who introduced the allergen, and anybody else who might be responsible--which is only natural, but is it just?

I think what sometimes muddies these discussions is that there are such varieties among peanut allergies, from mild peanut sensitivities to serious allergies which still require ingestion of an actual peanut or peanut product to life-threatening allergies in which pouring a bowl of cereal that happens to be manufactured in the same facility that manufactures a peanut-flour containing cereal is enough to send a child across the room into anaphylaxis. The news article, and the precautions the school is taking (e.g., peanut-sniffing dog) makes it seem as though this child's allergies are of the most serious variety, which makes accommodation more involved than merely agreeing not to bring peanut butter sandwiches or peanut-laden snacks to school.

texasmama said...

What is really sad about all of this is that these kids are totally normal in all ways, except for the possibility of dying rapidly because of an exposure to food. They are physically capable of playing and interacting, intellectually capable of learning, etc. But they can't be part of a normal life because people don't want to go out of their way to help that happen. Sad. Understandable that you don't want to place the responsibility for that child's life in the hands of others, but don't you do that when your kids go to school? And isn't it possible to turn this into a learning opportunity for others - to learn the value of another's life? To say, "hey, it costs me something to let you be here, but your life is worth it." If situations were reversed, I'd certainly see the value in teaching my kids to act that way towards another child. It's only handwashing, mouth rinsing and not bringing certain foods to school - they're not denied those foods forever, just from 8 to 3 on a school day. Too bad.

melanie said...

texasmom, the reality is it's just not doable and the stakes are way to high. My son is 6. He has 25 classmates. How long do you think it takes a teacher to make sure each and every one of those kids is peanut free at all times? 2 minutes a day? That's almost a whole hour of teaching time. What happens when, while she is washing child #12's hands child #23 who had a granola bar or lunch made in a factory with peanuts, rubs his hands all over the back of a chair that is then touched by the allergic child, or the door knobs? These children are 6. Does the school hire an aide to help the teacher make sure no one touches anything while she is washing hands and rinsing mouthes? And how much time can afford to be lost from the instruction day to do this and still meet the curriculum? My sons class is predominantly boys. Trying to get this done and regain order would be a challenge. And again, I don't lack compassion for the child, however, the stakes are just too high in relation to the odds of someone messing up. And let me tell you, if it were my child I would NOT risk his or her life in the hopes that a bunch of 6 year old children and their parents could vigilantly make sure mine did not come in contact peanut residue. And I am surprised that anyone would.

melanie said...

Also I should add that at my sons school, they eat snack and lunch right before their recess time. So hand washing and mouth rinsing ostensibly would have to take place during their recess time to make sure that the kids did not get residue on balls and playground equipment. Which would mean that kids would miss recess time. This is why parents are upset. Because logistically, it's impossible to cater to the one child without deeply impacting the day of all the others and this does not even touch on the psychological impact on 6 year olds of knowing that one mistake could result in the death of their classmate. So, I don't think people are just being "mean" here. There are real logistical problems with this situation.