Your child has rights when it comes to food allergy bullying
Written by Sussan, Greenwald & Wesler
Food bullying is not to be taken lightly. For a child with a life threatening allergy, it can mean serious illness or death–not to mention the anxiety and other psychological consequences from experiencing both bullying and physical response to a life-threatening allergen. We now know that fifty percent of children with food allergies who are in grades six through ten reports being the victim of food allergy bullying. Fortunately, the food allergy bullying law has evolved. Education will take more time, as schools, children with allergies, their peers, teachers, administrators, and health care professionals work together to implement the law and keep children with food allergies safe in school.
How can parents help? Parents can take these key steps to enforce their children’s rights to be safe in school and free from food allergy bullying:
1. Know that a food allergy that is life-threatening is also likely a “disability” under the law. Both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect children with food allergies in school. Children with food allergies are entitled to an evaluation by their school in order to determine if they qualify for a “504 Plan.” Such a plan lists: the accommodations that will be made for the student to attend school in an environment that is safe, the supports that will be provided, and emergency plans for addressing the child’s allergies in school.
A letter from a medical doctor attesting to the child’s life-threatening allergy may be required, but most students who have life-threatening allergies should meet the standard for receiving such a plan. The 504 Plan enables the child to participate in school, and school-related activities, alongside his or her peers. It is the legal right of every child with a disability that has a substantial limitation on a major life activity to receive accommodations necessary so that he or she may receive a free and appropriate education as required by law.
2. Parents should know that each school district is required to have an anti-bullying policy, and that food bullying is, in fact, bullying. A child who places crumbs of a peanut butter cookie in the lunchbox of a child with a food allergy is committing an act of bullying. It is that simple.
The New Jersey Administrative Code has made clear food allergy bullying is not permitted in school. Further, the New Jersey Department of Education issued “Guidelines for the Management of Life-Threatening Food Allergies in Schools” in 2008 which states: “bullying or teasing food-allergic students will not be tolerated and violators should be disciplined appropriately.” Parents should familiarize themselves with their child’s school bullying policy so that parents can promptly notify the appropriate school personnel of violations.
3. Parents should know that under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) students’ educational records are protected. Parents should ask teachers not to single out a child with allergies, for instance, by referring to the child as a “nut-free kid.” Such singling out of students may promote bullying.
4. Parents should be aware that children often do not tell their parents about bullying–food-related or otherwise. Parents should ask questions of school personnel and remain a presence in their children’s schools. Parents can ask children specific questions about their experiences.
5. Parents may help children learn to self-advocate. Children who learn to advocate for themselves often develop positive self-esteem as they become role models for other children. Children can make a meaningful difference in changing attitudes by sharing information in a manner that is understandable and heartfelt.
6. Parents should work cooperatively with school officials to create a safe environment for their children. However, parents should still pursue a written 504 Plan to benefit from the procedural safeguards and consistency having a written plan can provide.
Recent press attention given to the plight of children with food allergies, and to the existence of food allergy bullying, maybe a positive step. It is hopeful that new legislation and policies will increase awareness, action, and sensitivity to the need to keep all children both physically safe in school and free from bullying.