Our Peanut Free School Journey

In December of 2010, we began the process of asking our elementary school to go peanut free for our anaphylactic-allergic daughter in anticipation of her starting there the following year.

 This is the open letter I wrote to our community in anticipation of the controversy that might ensue:
Green and Bitchy: open letter about our school going peanut free

The process took 9 months in total, but the school was officially peanut free - or "peanut-restricted", as they prefer to be called - by her first day of Kindergarten in September, 2011.

I've waited until we made it through the entire school year safely before blogging our story. There are so many different schools of thought on how safe you can really make a school for children like my daughter. I know perfectly well there's really no such thing as any guaranteed "peanut free" environment where other people can come and go. But I also know that I can't seal her up in a plastic bubble and she deserves the ability to start finding her way in the world in an environment that at least gives her a fighting chance. 
I don't plan to ask that her middle school, her high school, her college or her job someday all go peanut free for her. But right now, when she's little and forgets to keep her fingers out of her mouth, or her nose, or her eyes, right now - it's vital that she have a place where peanut butter isn't, in case she forgets these simple frontline precautions to keeping herself safe. 

Even more reason my family in particular is overjoyed and relieved to have a peanut free school is the fact that we now have THREE children with peanut AND tree nut allergies -and all three are in elementary school together for the next 3 years. 

I'm writing this blog about our experience because I'm  asked for advice on the process via both the internet and in real life almost daily. Just today at our allergist's office, the Dr. came in and asked if he could give my contact info to another mother about to embark on the same process with her school in a neighboring county. It seems more and more that there is a demand and need for peanut-free schools for our children and I am only too happy to help in any way I can - increasingly so with every death notice I see about another child killed by peanut or tree nut allergies. 

Our journey started with our daughter having her 4th anaphylactic reaction at 5 years old and her allergist saying that she would only be able to attend a peanut free school. I had no idea how to make that happen, so I asked some friends who were teachers and was told I would need to make a 504 plan with the school. This is the federal law that says a school has to accommodate childrens' disabilities.  I found the 504 coordinator for our district and began emailing her about Jovie's condition and asking for a meeting. I'm really glad I started the process very early, because I had no idea it would take so long. 

Our school was initially already a peanut and tree nut free classroom facility. The principal we were dealing with at the time felt that this was good enough and balked at being asked to remove and ban peanuts entirely from the building and grounds. It turns out, however, that children were actually permitted to eat peanut products in the classrooms on field trip days or when the cafeteria was already in use for assemblies or events and they ate in the classrooms. Severely peanut allergic children could go eat in the principal's office at these times. I knew this plan would never work for my daughter due to the potential for peanut residue...and besides, if they bent the 'peanut/tree nut free classroom' rule regularly for these reasons, there's really no consistency or accountability. You can't say the classrooms are peanut and tree nut free if people can eat peanuts and tree nuts in them!

The school district was not satisfied with my daughter's allergist's letter describing her history and the severity of her reactions. I also provided one from her pediatrician, saying the same thing. The 504 coordinator took several weeks to call them both and have lengthy conversations about any other way they could segregate or accommodate my daughter. When the Dr.s held firm that she needs a peanut-free environment, they asked me to come in for a meeting where I once again had to explain her history and symptoms and was subjected to the principal's ignorance and irresponsible view on the subject. She told me, "If my children couldn't have had peanut butter, I think they would have starved to death - I think the way we have the school allergy plan right now is just fine." She asked me disbelievingly, "If she can't go to a school unless it's peanut free, how do you take her anywhere? Do you ask the supermarket to go peanut free for her, too?"

It was a wait of many more weeks while the school and the district reviewed all of our information. At one point early in the summer, they did tell me they would go peanut free, but then they retracted the commitment and said the decision needed further review. 

Finally they got back to me and asked if I would be willing to provide a 3rd medical opinion by a Dr. of their choosing? I agreed, with the stipulation that they pay for the consultation. They made us an appointment with the head of Allergy and Immunology at Children's Hospital of Detroit. Who not only upheld our original Dr.s recommendation, but added that the classmates of my daughter have to wash their hands upon arriving at school every morning. 

The District once again took many weeks to review this new recommendation and in the meantime, I began doing my own research into the issue and found some excellent sites for support and information on the subject:

As I waited to hear the school's decision, I contacted the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, Inc. and learned that we would be provided free legal representation should the school reject the three medical recommendations for our child's disability. I also learned that according to Michigan discrimination laws, offering to segregate a child with food allergies as a form of accommodation against the parents' preferences is actually a prosecutable form of discrimination against a person with a disability, but if the parents request this form of accommodation themselves, it is perfectly legal.
(We do have such a table at our school - it currently serves as a safe zone for tree nut allergic kids, in case other students bring in almond butter or other tree nuts, which are still allowed in our lunch room and grounds - just not the classrooms).

By the week before school was due to start, the district contacted us to let us know that they would be going peanut restricted for the entire building, field trips and outings and school grounds. We came in and drafted a 504 plan which all parties involved agreed to. Jovie's teacher, principal, a school nurse from the high school and the 504 coordinator were present, with the Superintendent having previously signed off on it. 

 A letter was sent out to parents days before school began, informing them of the new rule. The school issued a statement when the story was aired in the local media saying that they felt going peanut free was the safest policy for everyone at our school and that we have several students with peanut allergies. The principal hosted a question and answer session for over a week on our school's PTA page on FaceBook to answer questions and concerns that parents had about the new rule. Our PTA set up an allergy awareness table at our first PTA meeting of the new year, and offered samples of peanut butter alternatives like sun butter for parents to try. Our food allergy committee volunteers donated their time to put up the new peanut free signs around the building.
A letter went home with the "fun" suggestion that parents offer their children their favorite peanut-containing snacks in the morning (making me profoundly grateful for the added requirement of hand-washing before class by my daughter's classmates) before school and send them to school with their cereal to eat at lunchtime instead.

We also got a new principal during this time and I have to say he was a breath of fresh air.

His empathy and acceptance of what needed to be done to keep not only my daughter but almost a dozen other peanut and tree nut allergy students safe was reaffirming after the attitude of our previous principal. I watched the first week of school as he patrolled the halls and lunchroom, reminding and asking students about their snacks and lunches. He would bring them into the office if they had peanut products, ask them to throw them in a specially designated trash receptacle with a lid and then call their parents to bring replacement items or provide one from the school and send a note home. 

Per our 504 plan, the staff were trained in the use of Epi-Pens. 
 A plan was devised whereby substitute teachers report to the secretary for Epi-Pen training before they teach class.

We wrote an emergency anaphylaxis plan describing Jovie's typical pattern of impending anaphylaxis and how it should be treated and a copy was distributed to every teacher in the building and kept on file in the office. I made kits containing her Benadryl and Epi-Pens for the office, her classroom and her backpack. 

As stipulated per Dr.s orders in her 504 plan, she has also self-carried her epi-pen for her entire year of kindergarten.

Since just before she was four, she's never left home without wearing one of her special purses or fanny packs for her epipen and benadryl.

During the class celebrations and parties, the principal was everywhere, patrolling and checking the treats.

For Halloween, we came up with the idea of putting a big plastic bin with a lid just off campus, at the fire station behind our school. There we asked parents to deposit any peanut-containing candy they wished to donate. 

There were a couple of missteps in our carefully laid plans, but I don't think it was realistic to expect none during our first year of transition. A teacher made the oversight of bringing in an assortment of cookies for Teacher Appreciation week in May and it contained several peanut butter cookies. The oversight was caught quickly and the cookies disposed of, never having left the staff lounge. At the end of the year picnic in a local park, a parent brought baklava encrusted with tree nuts.

It was not removed or disposed of, reinforcing for me that my children simply won't be attending any extracurricular activities with food-centered celebrations, a backup plan I had already known I would feel it necessary to implement. 

Now school starts again for 2012 next week. Letters have already come home with reminders about the peanut free school and grounds as well as the peanut AND tree nut free classrooms and outings and field trips. The kindergarten meet and greet was this past week and I have another kindergartner starting this year, also with peanut and tree nut allergy - though he has not had an anaphylactic reaction (never having been exposed to peanuts or tree nuts). I brought all of my children to the meet and greet and saw no less than 2 peanut products in the group - a chocolate covered bar of peanuts and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

I'm not sure how these oversights occurred when letters went out to all families at our school, but the principal rectified both situations immediately. Letters will again be going out the first week of school and we will put up a reminder on the school's marquee, out in front near the main street. 

I think we also need signs by all of the gates onto our playground -a goal I hope to explore this year. 

It's not a perfect solution, I know they aren't 100% safe from ever being exposed to a peanut there, but I think it's a great compromise. The school is doing its job the best it can, and if I'm doing mine and reminding my kids constantly that they never eat anything that didn't come from home, that they wash hands frequently, that they report any symptoms to an adult promptly - then we might just come out of this with everyone a little safer, more tolerant and understanding about food allergies in today's world.

 And more importantly, we didn't lock them up and "keep them home" to homeschool them. Which is the version of homeschooling most people who recommend it to us peanut allergy parents seem to envision - when in actuality, my homeschooling friends and clients still have to deal with this issue in their many outings to public venues with homeschool groups, co-ops and sports activities! No parent of a child with life-threatening food allergy wants to emotionally cripple their child by denying them the chance to learn how to navigate out in the real world with their condition. Physically disabled children get wheelchairs and ramps, our kids need peanut bans until they are independent and secure enough to manage environments without them. 

 All we ever wanted was a chance for them to get the same thing other kids get: to go and learn and socialize and achieve without having to die or be seriously harmed while they do. 

Aside from my gratitude and relief that our district has provided us with that chance, I am thrilled and proud that our school is peanut free.

 There couldn't be a better location for a food allergy child to attend school, if you ask me. Right next door, on the corner of the street our school is on, is one of the top allergists in the state. In fact, he is the Director of  Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Beaumont Hospital as well as the Director of Pediatric Pulmonology.

 Sitting right smack behind our rear parking lot is one of Royal Oak's fire stations.

 It is a straight line from their back door to the kindergarten room door that would take less than 2 minutes to trot on foot.

 About half a mile down 13 mile road (that our school is on) is Beaumont Hospital. Literally about 4 minutes for an ambulance to cover. 

Across the street from the hospital is another one of the top allergy centers in the area.

 I simply couldn't think of a more perfect location for an allergy aware and peanut restricted school, frankly - and I'm very proud of ours for getting current and putting student safety first. 

(Updated 9/6/12 - The peanut free reminder was up before the 1st week of school was out and the principal informs me that we are on track to get signs on our gates soon.  :-)

Updated 10/4/12: We have now placed a peanut-specific trash can in the lunch room for when peanut products are occasionally overlooked and brought from home. We also came up with a note to send home in the child's lunchbox once the item is disposed of in the trash can, alerting parents to our peanut-restricted status and the breach of policy. This is a good step toward keeping peanut items out of  our school's main office, where they were previously brought.


Anonymous said...

congratulations on your efforts!! well done and keep it up!!
-Food allergy parent from SF Bay Area

jack said...

thank you!

Anonymous said...

I am a school nurse in an elementary school and the parent of a food allergic adult son who has a peanut allergic daughter. In your article I saw a few concerning statements. One- a secretary shouldn't be training substitutes. Only a nurse can delegate administration of an epi-pen. Do you realize that the epi-pen is to be given first and then the Benadryl? My concern would be that an adult would use the Benadryl and then "wait" to see if things would improve. BIG MISTAKE !!

jack said...

the secretary is the best our school can do. we don't have school nurses here. i always check w/ the subs myself to make sure they understand how to use it b/c i also am not entirely happy w/ the training arrangement.

yes, our dr.s have changed their stance on the order of benadryl/epi-pen for patients w/ a history of anaphylaxis - now we are told the same thing you said: eli-pen 1st!

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