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Child Forced to Eat Allergen, Maryland Court Rules School Lunch Program not Responsible

By February 28, 2012

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school busIn 2005, a 5-year-old kindergartner named Liana Pace forgot her lunch, and did not have enough money in her cafeteria account to buy a lunch. A school cafeteria worker gave her a peanut butter sandwich from the school lunch program which provides free or reduced-price lunches to low-income children . Liana told the staff member that she couldn't eat peanuts, but the adult interpreted that statement as disobedience and ordered her to eat the sandwich.

Liana obeyed her and ate it, and then immediately went into anaphylaxic shock. Luckily, the school nurse knew about her allergy and had Liana's epinephrine auto-injector. Liana was given epinephrine and rushed to the hospital.

Liana's parents did everything right - they had documented her food allergy with the school nurse, they had provided the school with an epinephrine auto-injector, and they had taught Liana that peanut butter wasn't safe for her and told her how to decline it when offered. And yet it wasn't enough. One adult who did not listen or take seriously Liana's knowledge of her own allergies undid all of the careful planning of her parents.

An adult authority figure has so much power in a young child's life that even though Liana knew she was allergic to peanuts, she obeyed this school employee. This is frightening enough to a parent of a child with food allergies who sends that child off to school each day trusting that the adults around her will keep her safe.

But there is another, even more disturbing level to this story.

Many states have laws that require children whose lunches are inadequate, including North Carolina, where recently a school cafeteria worker replaced a child's bagged lunch from home with cafeteria chicken nuggets. Schools that receive funding from the school lunch program are required to provide adequate nutrition to all children, so if a child's lunch is deemed inadequate by school staff, the school is required by law to feed that child something from the school cafeteria. This is why the sandwich given to Liana was part of the school lunch program.

Food allergies are a disability, and many children with food allergies have Section 504 plans, a legal document that lays out how a child's food allergies will be managed by the school. Section 504 refers to part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law which requires school districts to provide all students, regardless of disability, with a "free appropriate public education."

And yet, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that schools are not responsible for harm that may come to children being fed food they are allergic to under the school lunch program. I find it hard to understand how an adult who works with children can refuse to believe what a child says to them, or force a child to eat something. I find it even harder to understand how a state can declare part of itself exempt from a federal law.

If school cafeteria staff have the power to decide a lunch from home is inadequate and provide an alternate lunch - and if these government employees are not trained to be aware of food allergies and to believe what children tell them about their allergies - is any child with food allergies safe in a school cafeteria? A peanut-free table is meaningless in an environment where cafeteria staff are providing children with peanut butter without consideration of allergies. Less than meaningless if staff are force-feeding children anything at all.

Last night I sat my daughter down and talked with her about this story. I told her that if she forgot her lunch or part of her lunch and someone offered her food from the cafeteria that she should refuse the food and ask to go to the nurse's office and have the nurse call me. No matter what anyone said was safe. Anyone. Yes, I mean the principal too. I had her repeat: "Nurse's office. Call Mom. Get food from home."

I can only hope that if an authority figure at school orders to eat food or tells her something is safe, this little role play will stick with her. Because there will always be someone - a substitute teacher, a new playground aide - who hasn't read the emergency action plan I so carefully prepared and talked about with her teacher, the school nurse, the principal, and many special subject teachers.

Six million children have food allergies in the United States, and every one of them is priceless. To the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling seems designed more to limit costs than to provide a safe environment for children, I ask: What if Liana had died? What if she were your child? Would your ruling change?

February 28, 2012 at 10:04 pm
(1) Elizabeth says:

I was shocked by what happened – both to the child and in court. How could the Maryland Court of Appeals rule “that schools are not responsible for harm that may come to children being fed food they are allergic to under the school lunch program.” That makes no sense at all.

February 29, 2012 at 10:18 am
(2) Paul Antico says:

This is disturbing on so many levels that I can’t think of any words to appropriately describe my reaction.

February 29, 2012 at 10:30 am
(3) Andria says:

Disgusting. This makes me sad. Can’t believe a school can’t be held responsible.

February 29, 2012 at 10:35 am
(4) Khurff says:

My daughter brings her lunch however one day this year she dropped her chicken salad. The staff took her to get a sandwich and only when my daughter ask if the cheese sandwich had milk in it did they contact the school nurse. They then at the school nurses approval gave her chicken nuggets (which had milk in them) The school nurse called my cell phone to let me know what happened however I rarely have that phone on me at home. However she failed to call the home #. When i go the message it was too late and she had already consumed what she was told to be milk free nuggets. No one bothered to check the label until I called to question that. The school nurses response was wow never thought about checking the label for milk in a chicken nugget. Then she proceeds to tell me that my child was not on the allergy list that the cafeteria keeps as hers is not life threatening. It is GI so she will either vomit or have other issues over the next week. Luckily it was mild this time but, I was quite upset and told the nurse that in the future I was to be called before anything is replaced for my child to eat. she also has been added to the allergy list now. This could have been much worse had it be a child with a life threatening response to milk. BTW we live in MD and I live 2 minutes from the school so I could have brought her something immediately from home. She has been instructed not to eat anything unless it has been cleared by me at school now.

February 29, 2012 at 11:17 am
(5) Sue Mueller says:

Thank you for sharing. My daughter is 11 and very good at not eating food given to her. As Khurff points out many foods have hidden dairy. This is my daughter’s allergy as well and while at this time it is only GI related, her allergist has assured us that at any time she still could have an anaphylaxic reaction. My message to her is very similar to the author of the blog..that even adults make mistakes and unless she personally reads the label she should refuse all food given to her and anything home made. She simply says “I am allergic to dairy” as she gets older, I am more fearful as she spends more time away from home, yet more confident that she can clearly state why she can’t have the food.

February 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm
(6) Janine says:

I am also appalled at this. I do not have children with allergies, but I am a teacher at a school and we have a nurse that makes sure we are aware of which our students has which allergies. I do not think that the school should be held responsible for the actions of one adult, but I do believe that the ADULT SHOULD BE HELD RESPONSIBLE. She should have listened to the child and if she did not understand something, ask further questions, and/or ask the nurse or an administrator for guidance and/or help.

March 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm
(7) Jerry says:

The sad thing is that the school system and state will consider this a bullet successfully dodged. They will not make any change to their policy until a child dies. All schools will have to deal with this – as will the public. Allergies are on a dramatic, shocking rise. Allergy kids used to be rare. Now almost every class has them. The problem is ignorance from other parents and school staff. These kids don’t just get sick, they can die a horrific and painful death. Let’s hope we can learn prior to kids suffering needlessly due to simple ignorance. Let’s also hope for a smarter less corrupt legal system that can uphold and enforce smart policies and hold those responsible who do not honor simple procedure and common sense.

March 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm
(8) Jan M. says:

It’s so hard to have people take allergies or intolerance seriously. When the word “intolerance” is used, the attitude is that it’s not very serious. Well my daughter’s teacher, very well intentioned, brought my daughter a special gluten free mini cheesecake to class. She forgot that my daughter can’t have milk/cream and not all products are labeled correctly, so I don’t know if it was truly gluten free. That night she was vomiting all night and then spent the next 3 days in the hospital.. It wasn’t intentional and this teacher is very on top of IEP issues and medical issues. Even the best teachers make mistakes. That’s what makes it scary. Mistakes can have serious consequences. We try to help our kids learn to self advocate, but they are kids… in my daughter’s case she didn’t want to disappoint the teacher who was waiting and watching, for her to eat her special “GF” snack. So, she did and said it was delicious. She said, to me, I didn’t want to say I can’t have dairy, she was watching until I ate it.

March 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm
(9) Carol Kalvelage says:

Dear Jeanette-

Thank you so much for your advocacy of children with food allergies. I was thrilled when you started writing on this topic. We live in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and we are in the process of putting together Allergy Guidelines for Rochester Community Schools. Yesterday we met with a principal at a middle school in our district and he was quite wonderful. We have broke into subcommittees, and we (volunteers- parents, administrators, school nurse, custodial, food service) are going to try and enforce these guidelines by next school year 2012-2013.

We have been working on this for about 3-4 years. It is now just being brought to the table. I’m so grateful to those of us, including you, who keep on advocating in spite of HUGE hurdles, such as the context of this story. I do not want another child to die. It is not necessary. People think that we are hard on others, but we are just trying to save lives here.

Thanks again- keep up the amazing work!

Best wishes-

Carol Kalvelage
Rochester Hills, Michigan

March 8, 2012 at 7:04 pm
(10) Elizabeth says:

This story sickens me. I am terrified to send my 5 year old to kindergarten this year as she has a life threatening peanut allergy. Thank you for writing about this issue.

June 25, 2012 at 3:06 am
(11) face eczema treatment says:

Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you writing
this article and also the rest of the website is very good.

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