By Thery McKinney
As a parent, you teach your child how to manage his or her allergy. You try to protect your child in every way possible, under all imaginable circumstances and environments. Would it surprise you that according to a 2010 study published in the Annuals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology? about 35% of children over age 5 with food allergies have been bullied, teased, or harassed?
Most of the bullying was verbal but there were reports of physical acts; mainly at school, by their classmates. But alarmingly, about 21% of the time, it was the teachers or school staff who were the perpetrators. Teachers make the situation worse by constantly bringing to the attention of the class to the child with allergies.
“We could have a birthday cake, but now we can’t share it…”
“No treats because they might have nuts…”
Such insensitivity only leads to making the child a target for cruel comments and acts by fellow classmates. Bullies have found a convenient victim.
Depending on the type of allergy and its severity, taunting can become life threatening if the bully forces the child to consume (knowingly or unknowingly) the dangerous food item. Verbal and physical abuse can result in the child developing issues of declining grades, developing emotional problems, such as depression, inattention or aggressive behavior, even thoughts of suicide.
What can a parent do? There are several options available:
- You can request that your child be transferred to another class. However, that request is often denied.
- You can transfer your child to another school; but that does not guarantee the elimination of bullying.
- You can enroll your child in private school; but the expenses can often make this option prohibitive.
There are existing government agencies and laws that can be effective. It is important to know that your child does have rights. It is important to know what these rights are and to understand them.
To comply with the U.S. Department of Education, schools must offer students with disabilities, including those with life-threatening food allergies, a “free appropriate public education.” If the school district cannot provide such a program and the student is placed in a private school, the district has the financial responsibility.
Know also that if you do document the times of the bullying and know the student(s) involved, you can press charges against the perpetrators.
What a parent CAN do to protect a child’s rights:
- Food allergies are considered a disability under Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. File a 504 Plan with the school. A 504 Plan indicates the modifications and accommodations that will be needed for the student to have an opportunity to perform at the same level as their peers. This might include such things as wheelchair ramps, blood sugar monitoring, an extra set of textbooks, a peanut-free lunch environment, home instruction, or a tape recorder or keyboard for taking notes.
- Check out the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis network and its booklet, Students with Food Allergies: The Laws.
- Find out the school’s bullying prevention policy and how it’s being implemented.
- Discuss the bullying with appropriate school administrators, such as the principal, guidance counselor, psychologist, and case manager.
- Keep documentation of every bullying incident, including dates and details. Also, keep notes on every time you talk to the school about the incident, the school’s response, and its compliance to the rules of the filed 504 Plan.
- Discuss bullying with your child’s allergist. If necessary, ask the allergist to write a letter to the school about the child’s condition.
- Write to the school board superintendent or the school board attorney about the situation.
- If necessary, ensure your child has access to an epinephrine auto-injector at all times in case of emergencies. All states, except New York, protect students’ rights to carry and self-administer anaphylaxis medications.
Above all, the parent should not confront the bully themselves or tell the child to confront the bully. It can make matters worse.
Children who are bullied need to feel support from their families. They need comfort; they need someone they can talk to, parents who can say to them that they are “doing a good job putting up with it, and we’re going to stop this together.”
Growing up with food allergies is difficult enough for the child. Dealing with bullies doesn’t have to be an added concern.
Photo: David Castillo Dominici