Monday, May 17, 2010

Food Allergies and School

Thank you Amy for compiling this information for us!

These are just my opinions and research as a parent. My position is as a teacher, not counselor, nurse or special education teacher. I contacted counselors and nurses at several schools to get some feedback for this project.

First and foremost, understand how schools are similar, no matter which part of the country or which grade level:

1. The principal is in charge and responsible for everything at the school. At some point I would contact the principal—see my suggestion later in this handout.

2. Federal laws must be followed. By the way, if a private school accepts any federal funding, and I understand that most of them do, then they must also follow all federal education laws. If your child is on a “504 plan” (see below) then there is no question about how his or her care will be handled.

3. The school and its employees truly do have your child’s best interest in mind. That’s why we are in the profession!

There are many ways, though, that schools differ. Here are some of my suggestions:

1. Start in the spring. Contact the school nurse to set up plans and procedures. One nurse I talked to said, “The earlier that I know about an incoming child with food allergies, the happier I am.” Another nurse told me, “It is up to the parent to inform us what they want. We have some that want everything and then send in the allergen with their own student and others who want their child to not have any of these precautions.”
In spring most schools will not have student schedules set up yet for the next year so it may be difficult to contact the actual teachers who will see your student. You could ask to meet with the student’s counselor. Some schools’ administrators work during the summer and others don’t.
A few weeks BEFORE school starts, I would contact the nurse again to touch base. I would then talk to the guidance office to find out who the teachers are and try to set up meetings as soon as possible. We always have teacher work days before the first day but they are already PACKED with meetings. Understand that this will make it difficult to meet with the teachers. Perhaps a detailed email will do. If you don’t get a response from a teacher, call the school as well so that you absolutely have personal contact with all of your child’s teachers before the first day. Don’t forget study hall, lunch monitor, etc. My tip: offer to bring in lunch for the teachers of your child if they will meet with you during their lunch period one day during the teacher work days.

2. Time spent with your student per day varies based on grade level and on type of class at the elementary level. At the middle & high school levels, as well as for elementary music, etc. teachers, we can see well over 100 students per day. We learn the names as fast as we can but it helps to send reminders that very first week along with a picture of your child to help us!

3. At some point, contact the principal directly. I would probably do this a few weeks before school starts, after you make contact with the nurse again. He or she is SWAMPED with emails, so make it brief and to the point. Introduce yourself and let him or her know that your child will be in the building. Note the seriousness and potential negative health effects if health procedures aren’t followed correctly. This would be a great opportunity to give credit to the nurse if he or she has been wonderful, or to ask for help getting the message across if you don’t feel that the school employees have been helpful. The principal is the boss.

4. Most high school teachers are NOT epi-pen trained through the school and may have very little knowledge about food allergies. I sent an email to the entire faculty at my school a few months ago from a parent’s perspective. I just gave them an overview of the types of situations that could happen in their classrooms. I explained things that are terrifying to a parent. For example, obviously I mentioned classroom parties. Food is a great prop to use in some types of activities, games, or labs. Students could bring (or sneak) outside snacks in. I just wanted them to have a general awareness. You could draft something like that and request that the nurse or principal send it to help inform the staff.

5. Prepare a handout for the teacher to specifically leave in the substitute teacher folder. Technically the sub folder should include important health information about the students already, but I wouldn’t take a chance with this. Ask the teacher to leave it with whatever paperwork or folder is left for the substitute teacher.

6. Consider asking for a “504 plan,” especially if the allergy is life-threatening. The 504 won’t technically change the care your child receives. However, it is a legal document which states how your child is to be treated medically. Parents would have the right to sue if the procedures aren’t followed. Schools pay close attention to following 504 plans, needless to say.

The law: To put it simply, “To be protected under Section 504, a student must be determined to: (1) have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” Typically students who are on these plans have some medical condition. Deafness or anatomical abnormality would be examples.

"504" is a section of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which is part of a group of federal laws known as Disability Rights Laws (I know we don't consider our kids disabled because of an allergy, but if you can get past the wording, you might see the benefit of a 504 plan. In fact, in the 2008 amendment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the definition of disability was broadened to include "any impairment which limits a major life activity.")

"Section 504 states that 'no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under' any program or activity that either receives Federal financial assistance…”
Here’s the interesting part: The school decides, for each individual student, whether or not a 504 plan is deemed necessary. There is no blanket list of health conditions for it. There was a case in Gloucester, Virginia where a school denied a peanut-allergic child a 504 plan because they didn't feel the allergy would interfere with learning. The Office of Civil Rights suggested that because not breathing would interfere with learning, a 504 plan should be in order. The court stated that it was up to the school to make the decision. I talked to one school counselor who said “absolutely” a nut-allergic child would get a 504 plan. Most counselors and nurses said that they usually do not use them, though. One said that “we have been able to work informally with students and teachers without having a formal 504.” As a parent, I would push for one but realize that the child may be just as safe without a formal 504 if the school is very cooperative about the procedures.

The law “requires that school districts ensure that the determination that a student is eligible for special education and/or related aids and services be made by a group of persons, including persons knowledgeable about the meaning of the evaluation data and knowledgeable about the placement options. If a parent disagrees with the determination, he or she may request a due process hearing.”

Also, depending on the school, different people handle the writing of the 504. At the high school level I have often seen an administrator in charge of it. One school told me that counselors do it. If you would like one, you should ask around to find out which person in the school you need to talk to about it first. The plan would describe the condition and the specific procedures to be followed in prevention and in case of an incident.

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