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Mom sues Michigan district to ban peanut products from son's school

July 30, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
How far should schools have to go to accommodate the needs of a child with a life-threatening condition like a peanut allergy?

The parents of a 10-year-old boy in Michigan are suing his school district in an attempt to require it to ban all peanuts and nut products from the school. The mother, Kathy Williams, told a CBS Detroit station in April that the Livonia Public School District has refused to change its practices, citing fear of a backlash from other parents. The boy, Nick, has been required to eat his lunch separately in the school office and has been bullied by other children because of his peanut allergy, said his mother. A spokesman for the school district said they have done their best to accommodate the student's needs.

Nick's parents are undoubtedly trying to prevent a scenario like one that happened on Friday night at a campsite in California. A 13-year-old girl died when she mistakenly bit into a Rice Krispy treat that contained peanuts, according to The Daily Mail. The girl, Natalie Giorgi, spit it out immediately but still went into anaphylactic shock. Her father, a doctor, plunged an epinephrine shot into her three times and she was taken to a hospital, but they were unable to revive her. The girl knew about her severe peanut allergy and had been taught to be careful about what she ate, but all the efforts made to protect her weren't sufficient. Her twin sister also has a peanut allergy.

I believe that food allergies fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so schools and other public places are probably required to make reasonable accommodations for kids like Nick and poor Natalie. The question is what is "reasonable." Is it reasonable to ban all peanut butter (or eggs or milk or other products) that might do serious harm to one child in the school from the entire building or is a peanut-free table, standard at many schools, sufficient? Should Camp Sacramento, the camp the Giorgi family was staying at, have been required to ban all peanut products and vet all homemade treats for signs of peanuts? At what point does the reasonable become the unreasonable?

In Nick's case, it sounds like his allergy could well be as severe as Natalie's was, which might be why the school principal has had him eat lunch in a separate room. In similar cases, schools often let the allergic child pick a "lunch buddy" to eat lunch with him in the office so he doesn't have to eat lunch all alone. Those sound like reasonable accommodations to me. If Nick is being bullied, clearly the school needs to put a stop to it as they would with any other bullying.

But the parents of Nick's classmates apparently object to the idea of banning peanuts from the entire school to protect one student and I can also understand their point of view. As a vegetarian child Nick's age, I lived on peanut butter sandwiches and milk. It was the only reasonably healthy thing that the school cafeteria served that I could eat. Peanuts are also a major source of vegetarian protein.

More to the point, it is impossible to create an entirely peanut-free environment anywhere. If a child is led to believe that his school is safe, he might become less vigilant about what he eats and take longer to learn how to manage his own illness.

Despite recent media coverage, peanut allergies are also relatively rare, affecting about 1 percent of the population. About 150 people die of reactions to peanuts in the United States each year, 50 more than the 100 Americans who are struck each year by lightning, according to an article at Allergies to other foods, such as eggs or shellfish, actually affect more people.

What do you think Nick's school should be required to do?

Update: Kathy Williams contacted me and indicated that some facts in the original blog are inaccurate. She said that her lawsuit alleges that her son's school district has violated a Section 504 plan and the child's individual education plan (IEP). In the phone call on Thursday, she also said that the incidents of death in the United States due to peanut allergies and other food allergies are greater than 150 per year. However, various news sources report an estimated 150 to 200 deaths per year due to all food allergies in the United States. Peanut allergy is deadliest. The incidence of peanut allergy also appears to have increased in the last several years, based on the reports.


Article Comments



Oct-10-13 2:02 PM

I think schools ought to make reasonable accommodations in these cases but it probably is not reasonable to demand that schools go entirely nut-free.

I wouldn't say being vegetarian is a choice, either. At this point, I am physically incapable of eating meat without getting sick. That was also the case when I was 10.

Oct-10-13 11:33 AM

We are vegans. We haven't eaten nuts or nut products since our child was diagnosed with an allergy after an anaphylactic reaction last year following an incident with pistachios at school. He now reads labels, never shares food, removes himself from places where nuts are eaten, and washes his hands with soap and water before eating anything anywhere, particularly at school. But the risks of accidental exposure mostly at school are frightening. The idea that he may live with this potential danger throughout his life is almost paralyzing, especially given the careless, indifferent attitudes of people who just don't get it or don't want to. Andrea, a vegetarian lifestyle is a choice. Potentially fatal food allergies, which are increasing across the population, are not. And they can develop at any age, at any time, and initial reactions can be anaphylactic. Remember this if you or someone you love ever ends up in an ER with your throat swelling shut, panicked and truly afraid you may die.


Oct-02-13 12:32 AM

I have a son who is allergic to peanuts &would go into SHOCK & DIE if ingested I think it should be BANNED from schools.Its like a WEAPON What Parent would want to ever worry about their Childs LIFE being at risk?


Aug-13-13 1:57 PM

The story is at a site called Michigan Live. mlive dot com

I also received an email from another parent who claimed that the standard of "reasonable" doesn't apply when it comes to K-12 schools.

That still raises the question of what happens when more than one child with allergies to different foods is in the same small school with only one class per grade. If one kid is allergic to eggs and another to peanuts and a third is allergic to strawberries, how do you plan a school menu? I don't think it is fair or appropriate for the Williams' child to be bullied for his allergies, but he actually is the reason that the other kids can't have certain treats in school and it would be impossible to keep that fact hidden from his classmates, even if the teachers don't discuss it. The school can't control how the other kids feel about those food restrictions, though they can punish any bullying.


Aug-13-13 1:50 PM

Here's a bit more about the lawsuit filed by the Williams family: According to mlive****, the lawsuit alleges the school district has violated both the American Disabilities Act and Michigan's civil rights laws. They claim the school has sometimes allowed unannounced fundraising items and snacks that contain peanuts that could have caused their son to have an allergic reaction and that the boy has been singled out by teachers and other students as being the cause of other kids not being able to eat peanut products.

An appeals court in Michigan just upheld another school district's decision to ban peanuts after the parent of another child sued, claiming that it violated her non-allergic child's civil rights.


Aug-01-13 8:16 PM

== Continued == Other kids also have diets that may require the consumption of soy or peanut butter. I was one such child, because of a vegetarian diet. Kids with diabetes may use peanut butter as a quick booster food. Peanut butter is cheap and a valuable source of protein. What happens if a kid in the same class brings peanut butter to school despite the ban, as Matt below suggested, and the classmate goes into shock? Who would be liable? The other kid, the other kids' parents, the school? And is it fair to burden young children with that kind of responsibility? And how do you balance the needs of one child with the dietary restrictions with another? There have been different legal rulings on what is considered reasonable in cases like this.


Aug-01-13 8:11 PM

== Continued ==

Different schools have taken different approaches. Some may remember news reports about parent protests in Florida in 2011 due to accommodations made for a first grader with a severe food allergy. Kids in the class were required to wipe their hands with Clorox wipes, rinse out their mouths, no classroom parties with food were allowed, desks were wiped down frequently with Clorox wipes, the classroom was vacuumed daily and a peanut sniffing dog was brought in outside of school hours to go through the classroom. Other parents objected to some of those measures and a few suggested the little girl with such a severe allergy be homeschooled. The school responded that they were required to take these measures under federal law.

Given that some kids are equally allergic to other common foods like egg, shellfish, soy or certain fruits, I wonder what would happen if two such children were in the same grade in a small school with only one class section per grade.


Aug-01-13 8:07 PM

After talking with Ms. Williams, I looked at some of the legal requirements regarding peanut allergy and others. Under the various federal laws, including Section 504 and the ADA, allergies are considered a disability and schools that receive public funding must make reasonable accommodations. "Reasonable" depends on the severity of the child's allergy, what is required to accommodate it, and whether it will impose a serious financial burden or interfere with other educational programs. If a kid is so allergic that merely being in the same room with a peanut will send him into shock, the school might have to do things like ensure a peanut free classroom or ban the sale of peanuts in vending machines or in the school cafeteria. I don't believe school lunch is considered "an educational program."


Aug-01-13 8:49 AM

I know of one smaller school in our area that went peanut-free. The policy was implemented after it was discovered that one student (maybe more, I can't remember) had the peanut allergy.

This Michigan district is undoubtedly bigger than the school I know about. How much of a hardship would it be to implement peanut-free? They would know.

During my school years, peanut butter & bread were staples. You could always do pb if the meal-o-the-day wasn't to your liking. Peanut allergies weren't as widespread as they seem to be today.


Jul-31-13 10:07 AM

Might want to sue Texas Roadhouse also. Those guys have peanuts everywhere. It's nuts!


Jul-30-13 1:59 PM

"What do you think Nick's school should be required to do?"

Nothing. The school should just say that this hoopla is detracting from the educational mission.

If the kid has an issue, he's eventually going to have to own it. Because while you might be able to ban peanuts from the school, you cannot ban them from the world. He's going to have to learn to look out for himself and not try to force others into giving these things up.

As a kid, if such a ban would have been enacted, I would have brought peanuts to school for the sole purpose of defying the ban (I hated peanuts). Let that be food for thought...but only if peanut-free ;)


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