A 13-year-old Chicago girl died Friday from an allergic reaction after eating food at a school Christmas party. Read the full story here. There are no words to accurately describe how I felt when I first read this story, other than total sadness for this girl’s family. Sadness for the girl as she had to endure a terrifying experience before her death. And sadness for my son, and all the other food allergic children out there who live with this very real fear every day. It wouldn’t take much for the same fate to occur to any of our children. As I look at my son’s sweet smile, I see the innocence of an 8-year-old boy, who loves sports, video games and playing with friends. I can’t bear to think what my life would be like without him. Yet, when I heard of this 7th grader’s death, it reminds me that this could happen any day at any time. These children are so vulnerable, yet we still have to remind our schools every year of that fact when implementing food policies.
Just last month, there was a severe reaction that occurred at my son’s school in the first grade. It occurred after a first grade child inadvertently ingested food with dairy at a Thanksgiving party. Ironically, I happened to be driving by the school that day when I saw a fire truck and paramedics out front with their lights on. My heart stopped as I looked down at my phone to see if the school nurse had called me, which she hadn’t. But after my initial sense of relief, I saw one of my friends running down the sidewalk toward the school. Her child has food allergies, I put two and two together, and started praying. A lot.
Her child recovered, but any parent who has seen their child in life-threatening distress carries that fear forever. I contacted our school district to determine if, once and for all, they planned on taking food away from birthday parties, etc. I received response that they planned on removing food from all birthday and holiday celebrations in the first grade for the remainder of the year.
I immediately thought, that’s great…now what about the rest of the food allergic children in the other grades? Isn’t their safety important too? I felt that while this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t address the bigger issue of having set guidelines that are consistent across the entire district. I’ve also always said I don’t necessarily believe in food bans, because they promote a false sense of security that everything is safe, clean and free of allergens. All I have ever asked for from my school district is:
1. Food Free Birthday Celebrations. Notice I didn’t say Holiday, just birthday. I have always tried to start small with something that is doable for schools. But for some unknown reason, my school won’t make it a policy. They will only make a recommendation.
2. Not to use food as a reward at school.
3. Require that every food allergic child have a 504 Plan filed at school. This document would require, all teachers who deal directly with the FA child to comply.
4. Make classrooms free of the food that the FA child is allergic too. This could include: Dairy, Peanut, Tree Nut, Egg, etc. In other words, even snacks with those allergens are not allowed in the classroom. In addition, letters detailing this, along with a “suggested safe snack list” should be sent home to all students in the child’s class.
5. Train staff about food allergies. I am deeply comforted by the fact my son’s school nurse is VERY knowledgeable and concerned for the safety of our food allergic children. But I am also aware many school districts across the country can’t afford a full time school nurse on staff. This is when it is especially critical to make sure every staff member is trained on the use of epipens and how to treat an allergic reaction.
6. Finally, don’t let the burden of keeping our children safe and alive at school fall only on the parents of FA children. Take the initiative and develop policies, so these parents don’t have to roll up their sleeves at the beginning of every school year, ready to fight for a safer environment for their children (and have to endure the silent eye-rolling in the process). These children should expect their classrooms to be a safe haven, not a place that causes anxiety or bullying.
Tonight, my heart is heavy for this family who lost their sweet daughter to a senseless accident. Let her death not be in vain; contact your child’s school and let them know this happened, and ask them how they plan to develop policies for managing food allergies. Ironically, effective January 1, 2011, Illinois will be one of the few states to require school boards to develop food allergy management guidelines (thanks to all the amazing FA pioneers who happen to live in our state). Read more here and share the link with your school district.