In 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?