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Taking Food Allergies to School

By Mira B. Fern, Esq.

The central challenge for parents of children with food allergies is keeping their children safe without denying them the freedoms of a normal childhood. The issues of managing food allergies creep into all aspects of daily life, including food shopping, socializing and travel. For many parents, the most perplexing of these issues is sending their food allergic child to school. The school environment presents a unique situation in which the child's food allergy must be managed in such a way so as to allow the child to focus on learning. The child must be safe and remain included in the curriculum, and, since a parent can't go to school with their child, this all must be done without the parent present. At first glance, these hurdles may seem overwhelming, but with a little knowledge of disability law and some planning, they can be managed like any of your other food allergy issues.

Parents of children with food allergies should be aware that, very often, food allergies are considered a disability under the law. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973(commonly known as "section 504")requires that school districts provide a "free and appropriate public education" to students with disabilities. A disability includes a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. A "physical impairment" can be a condition affecting the respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive or skin systems. While each student's impairment must be evaluated on an individual basis, a food allergy has been considered a disability because it substantially limits one's ability to breathe. A letter from your allergist describing your child's condition is necessary in order to be afforded protections under disability law.

When your food allergic child has a disability, the school district must provide the child with an "appropriate" education in the "least restrictive environment." In order to achieve this, the school must strike a balance between safety and inclusion. This is to say that an education for a student with food allergies is "appropriate" if it is safe, but that safe environment must not unnecessarily exclude the child from school activities. Some examples of accommodations that school districts have made pursuant to section 504 are: designating the classroom a "peanut/tree nut free zone," training the child's teacher on the use of Epi-Pens and storing the child's Epi-Pens in the classroom, having a trained aide carry the child's Epi-Pens to the cafeteria and outside at recess, and requiring the school to consult with the parents on any activity involving food and to use only food approved by the parents in any class activity.

Schools often suggest arrangements for food allergic children that, while safe, are not in the "least restrictive environment." Parents should be prepared for this and may reject such arrangements by asserting their rights under section 504. Such examples of safe arrangements that are not in the "least restrictive environment" are: having the child eat lunch in the nurse's office (or isolated in some other way) or having the child eat something different from the rest of the class during a class party. The parent, in consultation with the child's allergist, should identify the specific components of a safe, inclusive environment for their child and be prepared to present them to the school district. Once you have a detailed letter from your allergist, the first step to obtaining accommodations for your child is to contact the district's "504 Officer" well before your child is enrolled in school. All contact should be in writing. You will most likely have a series of meetings with the school administration, during which you will make requests for specific accommodations. The accommodations are generally written up in a document commonly referred to as a "504 plan." The 504 plan lists and explains the accommodations that will be made in the school environment. An interesting, and important, component of the 504 plan is that the accommodations made by the school do not have to be "reasonable." While they may argue that the accommodation would be an "undue burden," the school is not allowed to tell you that your request is unreasonable. Of course, this doesn't mean that they have to do everything you want. You will, most likely, argue over what is "appropriate" and how best to achieve the "least restrictive environment."

There are several potential outcomes of this process. The school district may grant you a 504 plan that you are satisfied with. The district may grant you one that you are not satisfied with or it may deny you a 504 plan altogether. In the latter two cases, you can request an impartial hearing through the school district. You can also contact the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and ask for assistance. Alternately, you can hire a private attorney and commence legal action against the school district.

Remember that even with a 504 plan in place, there is no guarantee of complete safety for your child. But, with some knowledge of your rights and a bit of preparation, you can create a school environment for your child that you are comfortable with.

Mira B. Fern, J.D., is an educational attorney in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Ms. Fern has particular experience in the areas of food allergies and learning disabilities. She is the founder and chair of Food Allergy Empowerment, a support group for families with food allergies. You can reach her by phone at: (909) 382-6512 or e-mail at mirabfern@gmail.com.


Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.

 

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