Schools Take Precautions Against Nut Allergies

Some schools are taking extraordinary measures to make sure children with allergies are not exposed to peanuts. The numbers of allergic children are rising.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Coming up, music for every taste. But first, a taste more and more children cannot tolerate. The number of kids reporting peanut allergies is soaring. An estimated one in every 125 children is now allergic to peanuts. Experts don't know exactly why the numbers are going up, but whatever the cause, schools must decide how to protect students who can have severe allergic reactions.

Karen Brown of member station WFCR in Amherst has our report.

KAREN BROWN: At Norris Elementary School in South Hampton, Massachusetts, 11 students this year are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. One of them is so allergic, administrators say she could go into anaphylactic shock and possibly die just by touching a table bearing traces of peanut butter. So principal Bill Collins felt there was only one solution.

Mr. BILL COLLINS (Principal, Norris Elementary School): We've said that no nut or nut by-products should come into our school.

(Soundbite of cafeteria)

BROWN: The peanut ban starts here in the cafeteria, where school lunches are prepared without nuts or nut oil, and no student is allowed to bring peanut butter sandwiches from home. It also means no nuts for class parties, and even cleaning supplies are screened for nut ingredients. Principal Collins admits the policy was unpopular when it was introduced last year. In fact, the school board hired two police officers to be on hand at a meeting where 400 parents showed up to oppose the ban.

Mr. COLLINS: They were saying, why does everyone else have to change their ways for these students? Couldn't these students go some place else? Couldn't we separate these students somehow? And we really can't.

BROWN: An estimated 600,000 school-age children in this country have peanut allergies. And many administrators consider a severe allergy a disability they are legally required to accommodate. so more and more schools are banning nuts. But one group you might expect to be happy about this is not.

Ms. ANNE MUNOZ-FURLONG(ph) (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network): When a school makes a declaration about being peanut-free, they need to be able to live up to that. And over and over again we see they're using that term very loosely.

BROWN: Anne Munoz-Furlong runs the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a national advocacy group. She says since peanut bans are virtually impossible to enforce, they give only the illusion of safety.

Ms. MUNOZ-FURLONG: If a child says I have a peanut allergy, and I'm - I feel like having a reaction, my concern is that the staff would say that's impossible, we are a peanut-free facility. And I don't want a delay in getting help for that child.

BROWN: What the allergy network wants is for schools to take smaller, more targeted steps to keep students safe. For instance, train every teacher, substitute and bus driver in using EpiPens, which are small medical devices that can slow down an allergic reaction until an ambulance arrives. And Munoz-Furlong wants schools to scout field trip locations ahead of time.

Ms. MUNOZ-FURLONG: One school had a field trip to a museum. One of the exhibits that are children are going to had crushed nuts as one of the manipulatives that the children would be going be working and playing in, and they made another plan so that the children with food allergy would not be exposed or have a reaction.

BROWN: But some safety measures create extra work at a time when many schools are scaling back on staff, including school nurses. And there are other costs. The South Hampton School District had to replace peanut butter with more expensive ingredients and hire more lunch monitors. Even parents of allergic children don't agree on how far schools should go.

Miriam Burke(ph) of Western Massachusetts has a son in second grade who is severely allergic to peanuts.

Ms. MIRIAM BURKE (Mother): We want him to be a normal kid and to have a normal kid experience. I don't want him to feel like he has to be protected more than he really needs to be.

BROWN: Burke has never asked her elementary school to institute a peanut ban. But the school did agree to designate a nut-free table in the cafeteria. The school also sent letters to all families in the boy's class, asking them not to send any peanut products for snacks or class parties. But, Burke says, parents still do send in the occasional PB and J.

Ms. BURKE: I like to think that, you know, that we look out for each other's children, so I have to presume that it's just that they didn't understand, you know, what it could mean for that child.

BROWN: Massachusetts is among a handful of states with school allergy guidelines. They were created after three children died in three years from reactions to food. Pending federal legislation would create standard guidelines across the country. Banning peanuts is not among those recommendations.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.

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