Nut allergies pose problems in school cafeterias

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At Ramsey Elementary in the Gateway School District, 45 students have food allergies. As of now, they all sit with peers at lunch, but some are placed at the end of the table to minimize cross-contamination of foods.

At Moss Side Middle School in the same district, 32 students have food allergies. They all sit with other students in the cafeteria unless the parents request a separate area.

"It all depends on how severe the allergies are," said Cara Zanella, Gateway spokeswoman, who checked with several principals on how they handle food allergies at school.

But food allergies can be a stubborn problem, depending on the parties involved.

On Sunday, the parents of a former student in the Fox Chapel Area School District filed a lawsuit in federal court, charging that Fairview Elementary School didn't properly accommodate their son's allergy to tree nuts -- walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios and Brazil nuts -- as required by law. Despite telling the parents their son would sit at a "nut-free table," the suit says, the school made him sit alone at lunch, apart from the other students, resulting in teasing and humiliation.

The student still had several allergic episodes at school, the suit says, due to lack of a sufficient plan to protect him. When the parents withdrew him, the district filed truancy citations, the suit says. The boy now attends a private school; the parents are seeking tuition reimbursement.

The district said yesterday that it has accommodated students with food allergies and that the case was heard last summer by a hearing officer who found in favor of the district.

"We are confident that the federal court will agree with that decision," the superintendant's office said in a statement.

That hearing officer's report, dated Aug. 14, said the district met its obligations to educate the student and did not owe any reimbursement. But the officer also found that by filing truancy complaints, then repeatedly postponing the hearings before a district magistrate, the district retaliated against the parents for their advocacy under the Rehabilitation Act.

A federal judge can overturn the hearing officer's finding.

Angel Waldron, spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in Washington, D.C., said that even in cases of severe allergy, litigation can be avoided through cooperation.

"When parents work together with the school nurse and administration so they understand what precautions need to be taken, usually we can find a happy medium," Ms. Waldron said.

Food allergies remain an issue, she noted, with cases doubling over the past 20 years although the incidence has leveled off. Some allergies are severe enough to cause death -- the Archives of Internal Medicine says that 200 people die each year from food allergies.

"We had a patient who couldn't go into the school cafeteria at all if they were serving anything with tree nuts," Ms. Waldron said. "He had to eat lunch in the nurse's office."

Told of the Fox Chapel case, she said: "It sounds like what they did may not have been the best thing socially for the child, but if the allergy was severe enough ..."

The AAFA has no specific best practices for schools to follow regarding what an individual student plan should contain or where to place allergic children during meals. It publishes only general policy standards and recommends that states follow them.

For example, it wants states to require each school to have a full-time nurse; districts to provide case managements for students with chronic health conditions; states to fund staff training in food allergies; and allergies and asthma to be included in the health curriculum for all students.

The AAFA has a state "honor roll" recognizing those that adopt the policies into law. Six or seven states are on the list, Ms. Waldron said.

Pennsylvania is not one of them.

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Sally Kalson: or 412-263-1610.


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