The Other 60 Percent

Tackling food allergies at school

For parents of children with food allergies, school can sometimes seem like a minefield, with danger lurking everywhere.

Some students at Aurora's Park Lane Elementary eat lunch. The cafeteria pizza - unlike most pizzas - is made with whole wheat and lowfat cheese, so it's a "Slow" food. The lowfat milk is a "go" food.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Students at Aurora’s Park Lane Elementary eat lunch.

It’s not just the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that pop out of lunchboxes in the cafeteria. It’s the constant stream of food in the classroom, for snacks, parties, rewards, and even crafts like paper maché planets or peanut butter bird feeders.

Colorado Springs parent Katie Prichard knows the feeling. Her kindergarten daughter is allergic to peanuts, eggs, soy, sesame, green peas and apples, and while Pritchard is very pleased with the precautions in place at her charter school, Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, she said there are always worries. Sometimes about safety and sometimes about her daughter’s inevitable sense of being different.

“At school you should get to be like your friends…to have equal access to your classroom,” she said. “It’s kind of a barrage for a young kid in kindergarten.”

Pritchard, who leads Colorado Springs Mosaic, a group for parents of children with severe food allergies, said despite the challenges, she believes schools are moving in the right direction when it comes to accommodating food allergies.

“I’ve heard so many struggles other parents had before I came along,” she said “I definitely feel like things have improved.”

Kathleen Patrick, assistant director of student health services at the Colorado Department of Education, agreed, saying state laws and policies have enabled several key measures, such as allowing students to self-carry epinephrine auto-injectors, ensuring school districts have allergy policies and educating school staff about allergies.

Today, about 8 percent of children have food allergies, an average of two per classroom.

Patrick said when she was a school nurse years ago, she sometimes heard stories about school staff not taking a student’s food allergy seriously.

Today, she said, “We’re on the right road in terms of the education and getting the information out there…I think food allergy awareness is very high.”

Precautions vary

Nicole Smith, co- founder of the AllergicChild website and mother of a teenage son with food allergies, said the landscape for Colorado students with food allergies can vary depending on their school and district.

“Even within a school district you can have different levels of awareness,” she noted.

Patrick said sometimes the successful dissemination of food allergy information can hinge on how school nurses are deployed in a district. Compared to schools with a full-time nurse, there may be less overall awareness about allergy precautions, not to mention fewer trained staff members to administer epinephrine injections in an emergency, in schools where nurses work part time because they cover multiple buildings.

Another factor in how schools and districts measure up, she said, can be the presence of a parent, nurse or other staff member who serves as a champion for food allergy awareness and preparation.

Despite the differences between schools and districts, state policies and resources have created some uniformities in the last several years. Under a state law Smith helped pass in 2009, school districts are required to have policies to accommodate students with food allergies.

In Academy School District 20, which has a Food Allergy Task Force and is widely considered a leader on food allergy issues, the district’s five-page policy weighs in on food allergy issues large and small, from training staff to choosing field trip chaperones. (It’s recommended that parents of students with food allergies get preference.)

“Academy School District 20 is amazing, just plain and simple,” said Smith, whose son attends high school there. “They have long looked at the safety of every child.”

Often, food allergy measures depend on the number of students with food allergies at a school, the severity of their reactions, what precautions are requested by parents and what is deemed feasible by administrators.

For example, at some schools cafeteria tables are set aside for students with food allergies and there are strict rules about sanitation procedures as well as hand-washing guidelines for students.  This is the case at Ralston Elementary in Golden, where peanut and tree nut products are banned in all classrooms, but are permitted at designated cafeteria tables.

Even when schools have comprehensive plans in place and staff are attentive, allergens sometimes slip through the cracks. Patrick started tracking the number of students who experienced anaphylaxis and needed epinephrine at Colorado schools in the 2011-12 school year.

There were about 30 cases reported that year, and so far this school year, there have been 24. The causes include students sharing food, which is prohibited at most schools, but can be hard to enforce. In one case, a parent brought in cupcakes containing peanut products after signing up to bring something else. In another, a student with a latex allergy touched a balloon while she was helping decorate a friend’s locker.

“You can be as careful as possible and something may still happen,” Patrick said.

House Bill 13-1171

In case something does happen, many in the food allergy community are hoping that a bill currently under consideration in the legislature will lead to additional potential safeguards for children with allergies. Bill 1171, also called the stock epinephrine bill, would allow schools to keep epinephrine auto-injectors on hand for trained staff to use on students experiencing anaphylaxis even if they don’t have their own prescription.

The idea is to allow teachers or other school staff to immediately curb a life-threatening reaction during the crucial minutes before paramedics arrive. In part, the measure would protect students who have undiagnosed allergies that are triggered at school.

“Twenty-five percent of first-time [allergic] reactions occur in the school setting,” said Jennifer Jobrack, director of major gifts and regional advocacy for Food Allergy Research and Education, a national advocacy group.

Christianna Fogler, principal at Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, knows firsthand how that scenario plays out. Last fall, a first-grader at the school’s elementary campus came in from the playground and began experiencing anaphylaxis. The girl had no known allergies but her throat was closing and her breathing was labored, said Fogler, who will testify before the state Senate in favor of Bill 1171 this week.

After school staff called 911, paramedics arrived in just a couple minutes because they happened to be at a building down the street. They treated the girl, who may have reacted to a bug bite, and she recovered.

Fogler, who worries about what would have happened if the paramedics had taken 10 or 15 minutes to arrive, said the bill would empower school staff to do the right thing without worrying about liability or other legal issues. The school already trains all teachers, substitute teachers and lunchroom monitors how to recognize anaphylaxis and administer and EpiPen.

Currently, 17 states have laws covering stock epinephrine in schools, though the language and requirements range widely. Only Nebraska, Virginia and Maryland require schools to stock epinephrine auto-injectors. In most states, as would be the case in Colorado, the practice is voluntary.

Among the objections to the law are the expense of the auto-injectors, which typically cost $180 for a two-pack, and the extensive training needed to ensure school staff besides the nurse know what anaphylaxis looks like and how to use the auto-injectors.

Jobrack noted that Mylan Speciality, the distributor of EpiPens, has a program providing free and discounted EpiPens to schools, and that her organization has training resources available.

Trends toward protection and prevention

As a result of the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, students with severe food allergies are also increasingly getting 504 plans, which provide children with disabilities accommodations to fully participate in school.

Holly Camp, administrator for food service operations for JeffCo Public Schools and a registered dietician, said she helped execute the first food allergy-related 504 plan in 2009. Today, about 50 students in the 85,000-student district have such plans, usually because of allergies or intolerances to gluten, dyes or casein, a protein found in milk.

As part of the plans, the students’ parents, physician and often the school nurse make a list of accommodations, which may range from using extra sanitizer at the student’s lunch spot to allowing them to be first through the cafeteria line to ensure their food is prepared and wrapped first.

Patrick believes the increasing use of 504 plans for food allergies is a good development. In addition to helping individual students who have the plans, it can raise awareness overall, she said.

“What they are doing for one, they will very often understand that it’s important for another student with a recognized food allergy,” she said.

Smith, of AllergicChild, said another encouraging trend she’s noticed is that school wellness initiatives aimed at reducing obesity are being coupled with efforts to reduce allergy risks. Thus, many schools are getting away from using food as rewards or as the focal point of class parties.

For example, a few elementary schools in the Thompson School District in Loveland  adopted regulations this year eliminating edible treats for student birthdays and sometimes communal snacks where every child gets a portion from a large box of crackers or cookies. Wellness coordinator Kathy Schlepp said the changes came because school staff were trying to respond to food allergy concerns and also “the extra calorie piece.”

The district’s wellness plan, which is currently being revised, will also include some version of these restrictions next year.

“It will definitely be trying to cut down on unhealthy classroom snacks or treats,” she said.

student activism

Memphis students present demands on school safety in wake of Parkland shooting

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis students walked out of class last week to call attention to gun violence.

Students presented a list of requests to the Shelby County Schools board related to safety, including improving student discipline practices, hiring more school counselors, offering conflict resolution classes, and help in advocating against giving guns to teachers.

The list was created after walkouts last week at about 20 Memphis high schools in response to the killing of 17 people in February in Parkland, Florida.

Student leaders from five high schools gave a presentation Tuesday evening at a school board meeting, which was met with applause from district leaders.

“We ask that youth are visibly and vocally involved in decision making. We are the ones sitting in the classroom day after day,” said Mallori King, a junior at Ridgeway High School. “Youth voice should not look like tokenism. It should look like equity.”

The walkouts — that received the district’s blessing — also honored the 19th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Since the school shootings in Parkland, students around the country have demanded lawmakers take action against gun violence.

In the students’ words, they want the board to:

  • Stop kicking students out of school instead of figuring out what’s going on.
  • Make time for teachers and administrators to have one-on-one time with students so they can truly get to know them.
  • We need more counselors and support groups.
  • We want a conflict resolution class to be taught in school.
  • We want a class on mental health to be taught in school.
  • Do more to stop sexual harassment and assault from happening in our schools.
  • Please do not arm our teachers. Help us prevent this from happening.
  • Keep supporting student activism and student voice in Shelby County Schools.

Savanah Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School, said support for students, such as more school counselors, and a mental health and conflict resolution class, would most effectively prevent violence in schools.

“People with mental health issues are not the problem. The lack of resources for people with mental health issues, such as myself, is the problem,” she said.

LaDiva Coleman, a senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, spoke against a recent legislative effort to arm teachers with guns, an effort lawmakers say could make students safer but is adamantly opposed by many educators.

“Arming teachers with guns will not make us safer because we don’t know what’s going in teacher’s minds during the day,” she said. “If a student can shoot other students with guns, so can teachers.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he would review the district’s sexual harassment policy, which he conceded is not specific about student-to-student protocol. He also called the mental health class “a wonderful suggestion.”

Students unrelated to the list of requests asked board members during the meeting to allow a student representative on the board. Hopson said that would be an “easy win” and “would work with the school board to see if that can happen.”

“I’m very impressed and very proud of our students,” Hopson said after the meeting. “They want their voices to be heard.”

The district’s proposed budget, which heads to county commissioners for approval next month, already addresses some of the students’ requests. The $1 billion spending plan includes $4.3 million to hire 35 school counselors, and $800,000 to hire 10 more behavior specialists, who are charged with dealing with root causes of student misbehavior. The Memphis district has the highest rates of student suspension in the state and has been working in recent years to prevent that.

Notably missing from the students’ list was the main proposal county and district leaders have promoted as a key prevention of violence in schools: school resource officers, the armed district employees and sheriff deputies trained to work in schools.

County leaders, including Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, recently produced a report urging the county’s seven school systems to review their emergency plans and take stock of their school resources officers, but didn’t offer specific recommendations.

Hopson’s budget includes $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers, some of whom would be assigned to elementary schools for the first time. That’s on top of the 98 already in all of the district’s high schools and some middle schools.

Student leaders plan to accept more recommendations from students through their website: www.walkoutmemphis.weebly.com.

This story has been updated with comment from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

showing up

Nearly 60 percent of Newark 12th-graders are chronically absent. Today, a conference will tackle the issue.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Last school year, nearly one in three Newark students was chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days. For Newark 12th-graders, the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The problem is the subject of an all-day conference on Tuesday at Rutgers University-Newark called, “Showing Up Matters: Shifting the Culture of Chronic Absenteeism.” Mayor Ras Baraka and Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory are both scheduled to speak.

The conference comes as educators and policymakers nationwide have zeroed in on chronic absenteeism, following research that shows it’s linked to negative outcomes for students including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

New Jersey is one of three dozen states that plans to evaluate and potentially sanction schools based on how many of their students are chronically absent — a measure that counts any day a student misses school, whether the absence is excused, unexcused, or for disciplinary reasons.

Newark’s chronic absenteeism rate is more than double the national average of 13 percent (a rate based on a slightly lower definition of 15 or more absences per year). In response, the district launched an attendance initiative in 2016 to drive down its chronic absenteeism rate, which is worse than in other high-poverty districts across the state. And two different city advisory groups — the Children’s Cabinet and the Newark Youth Policy Board — are focused on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, students who are absent a lot tend to do worse in school. In Newark, as in other districts, students who were chronically absent had lower state test scores and were less likely to graduate. The district found that just 58 percent of ninth-graders who were chronically absent in 2011-2012 earned diplomas four years later, compared to 86 percent of students with good attendance.

A 2017 report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey shed some light on why Newark students miss so much school. Among the reasons cited by dozens of high-school students who were interviewed for the report were: boring classes, coursework they couldn’t keep up with, mental-health challenges, long walks to school, having to hold down jobs or help care for siblings, and neighborhood violence.

“How can we focus on school when someone got killed yesterday?” one student is quoted as saying. “It’s hard. I can’t balance the two. I can’t focus. How am I supposed to feel safe walking to school when at night in that area there [are] shootings?”

Attendees are likely to grapple with tough questions like those at Tuesday’s conference, which goes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Rutgers Paul Robeson Campus Center. You can find details here.