Fox Chapel district's handling of student's nut allergy prompts lawsuit

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Fox Chapel Area School District didn't adequately address a student's severe allergy to tree nuts and subjected him to ridicule by seating him alone in the cafeteria, according to a lawsuit filed Sunday in U.S. District Court.

The district said today it has accommodated students with allergies and prevailed at a pre-litigation hearing in this case.

The lawsuit filed by attorney Jeff Ruder, which refers to the student only by the initials T.F., alleges that the district violated the federal Rehabilitation Act, resulting in "disability-based harassment" for the student.

Dissatisfied with Fox Chapel, his parents enrolled T.F. in a private school, according to the lawsuit, which seeks compensatory damage and payment for the student's tuition.

According to the lawsuit, T.F. is allergic to tree nuts -- walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, pistachios and Brazil nuts -- and "even trace amounts can be enough to cause a severe reaction."

He enrolled at Fairview Elementary School in fall 2010, after administrators told his parents that there was a "nut-free table" in the school, according to the lawsuit.

There was no nut-free table, according to the lawsuit, and the district's plan to prevent T.F. from coming into contact with tree nuts was not detailed or sufficient.

The student twice developed hives, once had an itchy lip and facial swelling, and had a full-blown reaction including vomiting and throat problems after bobbing for apples, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint did not say how the Halloween tradition came to involve nuts.

Rather than sitting at a nut-free table with other students in the cafeteria, T.F. was placed at a desk separated from the other students by two empty chairs, resulting in teasing and humiliation, according to the lawsuit.

When T.F.'s parents withdrew him from the school, the district filed truancy citations, according to the lawsuit.

"The Fox Chapel Area School District has and will continue to make appropriate accommodations for students with allergies that are enrolled in the district," the district superintendent's office said in a statement. "A hearing officer in this case, which was heard this past summer, found in favor of the Fox Chapel Area School District on this issue and we are confident that the Federal Court will agree with that decision."

Trish Andrews, an attorney for the district, said the state Department of Education Office for Dispute Resolution hearing officer heard every concern listed in the complaint and found that the district accommodated the student's needs.

She would not discuss specifics because of student privacy rules.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord.


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