Severe Nut Allergies Are A Disability, DOE Says
By: Alex Scofield
Life-threatening allergies are considered a disability and are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to a representative from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. And just as school districts must make their buildings safe and accessible to people in wheelchairs, they must also make them safe for people suffering from severe allergies.
This news comes in the midst of a minor controversy among parents over a recent ban on all nut products at the Oak Ridge School.
Some parents are saying the ban goes too far and creates an unnecessary inconvenience for the large majority of families.
The critics of the ban have also argued that the ban creates a false sense of security within the schools, leading parents and students to believe that the school is nut free, when such guarantees are actually impossible to ensure.
But Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson said she had little choice but to enact the ban.
Given the fact that severe allergies are listed as a disability under the ADA, the district could open itself to costly litigation if it were not to take measures to provide a safe environment for students who are highly allergic to nuts.
Jonathan W. Considine, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that while the Department of Education provides guidelines for districts on how to handle students with nut allergies, they do not provide any specific rules or regulations.
He added that it is not the DOE’s job to punish schools if they do not enforce an adequate allergy policy.
“This would be a local policy, and it’s really up to local school committees and local leadership to manage,” he said.
Instead, he said, the DOE strongly encourages districts to confer with the doctors of students with severe allergies in order to determine the best policy to handle allergies.
He pointed out that districts need to be particularly careful in covering all the bases when it comes to crafting allergy policies, as severe or life-threatening allergies are listed within the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Department of Education’s 2002 report, Managing Life Threatening Allergies, states that “when a physician assesses that a child’s food allergy may result in anaphylaxis the child’s condition meets the definition of ‘disability’ and is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1973.”
It goes on to state that “it may be covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act if allergy management affects the student’s ability to make educational progress.”
“This is viewed as a disability and why it’s so important for physicians to step in and provide guidance,” Mr. Considine said.
Dr. Johnson said that because severe allergies are listed in the American with Disabilities Act, the district needs to respond to the needs of those students just as they would with students with any other disability.
“Just as we are required to meet the needs of students who have learning or social challenges to the best of our abilities, we are required to meet the needs of students with severe allergies.”
Dr. Johnson said that the Oak Ridge School had already set up nut-free classrooms and lunch tables prior to the start of the year, but needed to call for a more comprehensive policy due to the severity of the students’ reactions.
“There’s a line between allergy and severe allergy,” she said. “In this situation it was so severe we had to take the next step. It’s not just a good idea. It’s what the law requires us to do.”
School Committee member Andrea M. Killion, who last week said she had packed a peanut butter sandwich for her son’s school lunch every day because it was a healthy and affordable option, said she did not believe the nut ban was necessary under the ADA.
“It says we need to come up with a policy,” she said. “It does not say anything about a total ban.”
Ms. Killion said she understood that the ban was put in place because of the severity of the students’ reactions, but hoped the committee could find a more reasonable long term solution.
Dr. Johnson said she is currently coordinating with Rita Brennan Olson of the Department of Education’s Office of Nutrition, Health and Safety to bring a guest speaker to the Oak Ridge School to discuss peanut allergy management with parents.
She said she is hoping to bring in Dr. Michael Pistiner, an allergist practicing in Leominster and who recently completed his allergy/immunology fellowship at Children’s Hospital Boston at Harvard Medical School.
Oak Ridge School Principal Thomas C. Daniels also held a forum with parents on Wednesday morning to discuss the Oak Ridge School’s policy.
Michelle C. Oriola of Nottingham Drive said she was thankful that the schools were taking time to discuss the policy with parents, but thought they should have started doing so much sooner.
“Mr. Daniels said they were talking about becoming nut free since the beginning of the school year, but the first I heard about it was when they banned peanuts from all the schools,” she said. “They might have been talking about it, but they haven’t talked to us.”
Ms. Oriola said she understood that the schools had a legal obligation to provide a safe learning environment for students with allergies, but still thought the measure they have taken to do so did not take into account the feelings of the vast majority of the school population.
“I do feel bad for these parents, and I feel like we have taken time to consider them,” she said. “But I don’t think they’ve taken time to consider us.”
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