A stuffy committee room at the State Capitol got a spark of life as its back rows filled with parents and toddlers. Among the black suits, leather folders and the buzzing of BlackBerries were sippy cups, gurgling babies and a lavender My Little Pony.
These mothers were in it for the long haul, waiting to wage war over something they say threatens their children’s lives — peanuts.
“We hear about kids being chased with peanut butter sandwiches on the playground and teachers being inconsiderate to children who have life-threatening allergies,” said Chandler mom Jeannine Markandeya.
“We’re not talking about, (a child) gets a rash when she eats strawberries. We’re talking, if she eats the peanut, she’s dead.”
Markandeya is a founder of the Phoenix Allergy Network — a group of Valley parents lobbying in full force to get state lawmakers to take on the issue of how schools respond to food allergies in children.
Food allergies are skyrocketing across the country as more and more children come to school with severe reactions to foods like peanuts, eggs, milk, wheat and soy.
Markandeya and other parents don’t think Arizona is keeping up. Each school district has different guidelines for dealing with children who have severe allergies, and they believe there is not enough education for school staff.
“Some districts have excellent guidelines and yet there is a repeated failure of those protocols,” Markandeya said. She chose home schooling for her first-grade son because she fears sending him to a place all day where he is surrounded by peanut products. Other East Valley parents have enrolled their children in private schools where they feel they have more control.
That’s why they want legislation that makes public schools take more responsibility for the care of children with food allergies.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Chandler, would require school districts and charter schools to develop guidelines for managing severe food allergies, as well as training for teachers and principals to administer through a needle a small shot of epinephrine that can reverse a life-threatening reaction. Districts that do not comply could see up to 10 percent of their state funding withheld.
Several high-profile education groups oppose the measure, saying it carries too many obligations for school staff.
“What if you have a teacher who did not go to medical school and is not comfortable putting (epinephrine) in a child? Is that person now liable?” Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist Janice Palmer asked lawmakers last week.
Palmer said she would want an “opt-out” clause for teachers who do not feel comfortable administering the medication.
After hearing education lobbyists’ concerns, Nichols wrote and introduced another bill that would only require school boards to allow children to carry and self-administer medication for life-threatening allergies.
That’s not good enough for Markandeya. An anaphylactic shock — which can stop a person’s breathing — can happen so quickly that even an adult can have trouble reacting and self-administering medication, much less a young child, she said.
“I can understand schoolteachers have so much put upon them at this time... but this to me is like, if a child is choking, and you know the Heimlich (maneuver), are you going to stand there and watch the child die?”
Dr. Duane Wong, of Arizona Allergy Associates, said his daily interaction with highly allergic children has led him to support the bill.
“How good the care is for people with food allergies is really dependent on how good the nurse is and how much they know about it. Unfortunately not everyone has the same education level,” he said. “No one’s making everyone hose down the playground equipment or anything like that... just make sure we have standard guidelines of care to treat these emergencies.”
If a school hasn’t yet had to deal with such an emergency, chances are it will soon, said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.
One study found that, between 1997 and 2002, the incidence of peanut allergies in children doubled, she said.
While there’s no general agreement on why the numbers are rising, Wong said one possibility is that children are being exposed to peanut allergens at an earlier age, either through baby creams or by ingesting dry-roasted peanuts.
Munoz-Furlong said another possible reason could be that as Americans become more clean and hygienic, the immune system doesn’t have anything to do and creates problems.
Some schools have already been forced to react to the increase in allergies. Scottsdale’s Copper Ridge Elementary School has gone “about 99 percent peanut-free,” due to an unusually high number of students with severe peanut allergies, said Kelly Rindone, who runs service and menu planning for the Scottsdale Unified School District.
The district only serves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches twice a month, as opposed to other schools that serve more. Also, the entire district serves pre-packaged sandwiches, which means no kitchen equipment will become contaminated by spreading the peanut butter.
In the Cave Creek Unified School District, some schools have separate “peanut-free” tables designated in the cafeteria.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean all those kids who are allergic go over in a corner,” said Jeff Stempak, the district’s food services director. “We don’t want them to be segregated. But it means anyone who isn’t having any sort of nut products are allowed to sit there.”
Staff cleans and sanitizes such tables more than five times a day, he said.
The Chandler Unified School District currently provides special meals for roughly 50 children with severe food allergies — though that number can go up to near 100 depending on the year, said the district’s food and nutrition supervisor Wesley Delbridge.
“We work with parents and the child’s medical providers to develop a weekly or biweekly menu for the child,” he said. “We go to a health food store and grocery shop. Let’s say we serve a deli sandwich or hamburger that day and they’re allergic to wheat, then we buy gluten-free bread.”
The kitchen manager knows which child has allergies, and a note pops up on the computer system so the server knows a child gets a special meal. Families come to Chandler schools from other districts specifically because of the fact that the district offers these special meals, he said.
Precautions aren’t limited to the lunchroom. A few years ago, when one school enrolled a student with a severe nut allergy, the district set up a handwashing station outside the classroom so they were not bringing remnants from breakfast onto classroom desks or crayons, he said.