Parents seek safe food handling instructions

Press Board of Education to update schools' policies on food allergies

When Elizabeth Cherniske’s daughter came home from school and told her a classmate had been putting her life at risk, Cherniske was shocked.

Her eight-year-old daughter has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. But, every school day for three weeks the child sitting next to her in class ate nuts as a snack.

“I was under the impression she was in a nut-free class,” Cherniske said.

It was not an administrator or teacher that broke the news to Cherniske.

“It was my daughter who brought it to my attention,” she said.

That is when it became clear to Cherniske that the Fairfield school district needs a new policy to give the schools authority.

Following rules

The Fairfield school district is in the process of updating its food allergy management policy, which, according to Connecticut General Statute 10-212c, on managing food allergies in schools, should have been done by July 1, 2006, following new guidelines.

Fairfield’s policy has not been updated since 2004.

“We certainly can do better than we are now,” Jennifer Maxon Kennelly, chairman of the Board of Education’s Policy Subcommittee, said.

At the Policy Subcommittee’s June 24 meeting, it was acknowledged that non-compliance with existing protocols regarding food allergy management is commonplace.

“Nowhere do we address blatant lack of compliance,” Maxon Kennelly said at the meeting. “There are parents who will flat-out refuse [to comply].”

In fact, Maxon Kennelly told a story at the meeting about a parent being contacted to request she stop sending nuts to school with her child — who was in a nut-free classroom. The parent replied no.

“The parent refused to not send nuts,” Maxon Kennelly said.

Who is responsible?

Cherniske’s daughter has a 504 plan with a note from her doctor stating that it is imperative that she be kept away from exposure to peanuts and tree nuts “to reduce the risk of accidental exposure and subsequent reactions.”

The doctor’s note also states that Cherniske’s daughter “should be in a peanut/tree nut-free classroom.”

But the question of who should be enforcing this is a point of contention between parents and Maxon Kennelly.

“We cannot ask staff to read food labels,” Maxon Kennelly said at the meeting.

In a recent interview, she further said that she does not believe in teachers reading every label every day.

That is what some parents are asking be done.

“You have no other choice,” Tricia Donovan, mother of two children with life-threatening allergies to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, said.

Donovan doesn’t see anyone else who could do the job of protecting children in the schools’ care.

“If teachers aren’t going to have responsibility, who will?” she said.

But she doesn’t think it will be a long-term burden.

“Things always take time in the beginning when you’re implementing them,” Donovan said.

But people get the hang of it.

“Then it becomes part of the routine and it takes less and less time,” Donovan said.

She just hopes it doesn’t get to be too late.

“We’re just lucky that nobody has been killed because of this,” Donovan said. “Who’s going to be the first?”

Tragedy can strike

In 2010, a 13-year-old Chicago girl died from a severe reaction because of a life-threatening allergy to peanuts.

The Chicago Public School system was in the process of working on a policy to address food allergies based on guidelines put out by the Illinois Board of Education.

According to Jessica Curran, Fairfield mother of twins in elementary school with life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, few states are doing well with managing food allergies in schools.

“Massachusetts, Illinois and Colorado [are among the few states that have] made greater headway due to tremendous advocacy and deaths,” Curran said.

She hopes it doesn’t come to that in Fairfield.

“We’re trying to be more proactive,” Curran said.

But she sees a lot of holes in the system. In addition to non-compliance, she points to a lack of certainty.

“Epi-pens are effective but don’t always work,” Curran said.

She added that more training is needed.

“Substitute teachers are not always trained to administer epi-pens or know [allergic reaction] symptoms,” Curran said.

In a situation in which time is of the essence to save a life, Curran feels that the current situation is inexcusable.

“This district has taken a very lazy approach to managing food allergies,” she said.

What about preparing the child to live in the real world?, a line these parents hear a lot.

“In the real world, they can leave a situation that’s unsafe,” Curran said.

Children cannot just leave school. And they are often too afraid to turn in friends and teachers for non-compliance.

“They don’t want to be a bad guy, they don’t want to get a teacher in trouble, or a friend,” Donovan said. “It has to come from the school.”

Education

The school district has no ability to sanction parents, who are the ones who send children to school with food.

“There’s a complete breakdown of compliance,” Donovan said.

She knows that change could take time.

“It’s not going to be a simple answer, an easy answer,” Donovan said. “It’s going to take time to get through the school system.”

It will also take a community effort.

“For me, the baseline is educating the children,” Donovan said.

She sees how her children’s friends respond to being educated about her children’s needs.

“They are so responsible,’ Donovan said.

She points to the parents as the negligent ones.

“They’re thinking about themselves,” she said. “This is what I want to feed my child.”

Curran said that it requires some thought to change.

“Parents don’t want to be inconvenienced,” Curran said.

And certain things cannot be taught.

“You can’t actually get people to empathize and be compassionate,” Donovan said. “Instances are happening all the time.”

Living with dread

Curran broke down in tears during the public comment portion of the June 24 policy meeting.

“I have a lot of emotions,” Curran said.

She doesn’t understand how this situation could be this way in a town such as Fairfield in 2014.

“This community doesn’t tolerate much,” Curran said.

But she has to live with heartache.

“My life is a living hell,” she said. “My kids are going through a lot.”

She wishes people would understand.

“We are talking about a life-threatening disease,” she said. “Avoidance is the [only] prescription for our kids.”

Curran said even with the best policy, the only way for the school district to do its best to help protect children with life-threatening allergies is with “consistent implementation.”

She has been told the teachers aren’t going to do it, the nurses aren’t allowed to do it and the principal can’t do it.

“[So] what’s the point in having a policy,” Curran said.

The policy that the Board of Education’s subcommittee is working on has now been expanded to include all life-threatening allergies, not just food, and glycogen storage disease.

Maxon Kennelly welcomes ideas on compliance.

“I throw it out there looking for ideas from other people,” she said.

In the meantime, she is looking to see what other districts do about this issue.

“I’m asking what has been tried and has or hasn’t worked,” she said.

Help for parents

Parents may reach out to Curran and Donovan by emailing them at [email protected]

Donovan suggested parents looking for a way to effect change can also reach out to the Board of Education, “letting the board know that they believe this is important for the school to do.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 25% of the severe and life-threatening allergic reactions occurring at schools are in children with no previous diagnosis.

The Board of Education Policy Subcommittee will not meet in July. The next meeting is Monday, Aug. 25.

Contact information for board members may be found at fairfieldschools.org/board-of-education.htm.

At the June 24 meeting, mother Tricia Donovan, center, looked on as members of the Board of Education and other school officials worked on a new policy for handling life-threatening allergies and glycogen storage disease. In back are Andrew Feinstein, an attorney representing parents and students. Also, Deputy Schools Supt. Karen Parks, and Michelle Laubin, an attorney for the Board of Education. (Laura Modlin Photo)

At the June 24 meeting, mother Tricia Donovan, center, looked on as members of the Board of Education and other school officials worked on a new policy for handling life-threatening allergies and glycogen storage disease. In back are Andrew Feinstein, an attorney representing parents and students. Also, Deputy Schools Supt. Karen Parks, and Michelle Laubin, an attorney for the Board of Education. (Laura Modlin Photo)

 

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