Mom petitions to change allergy policy in schools after boy dies eating grilled cheese

Contributing Writer
Yahoo Lifestyle
Do school lunches need to change? (Photo: Getty Images)
Do school lunches need to change? (Photo: Getty Images)

In late October, school staff members gave Erin Burch’s daughter a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There was one problem, though. The preschool student has a severe peanut and tree-nut allergy. But somehow the little girl took a bite. It was only then that the teacher noticed the student was suffering.

Instead of contacting paramedics immediately or administering the EpiPen, the school called Burch, who arrived 40 minutes later “in a literal panic” to find that her daughter had still not received an EpiPen injection. 

“I watched as the school nurse fumbled with the EpiPen obviously unaware of how to administer it properly,” she recalled.

Burch, who lives in Dallas, says through direct conversations with her, the principal, cafeteria manager, teachers, and school nurse all knew about her daughter’s allergy. And while mistakes do happen, and have happened, Burch says she watched the school also accidentally gave her daughter fish sticks once while visiting for lunch — the incident could have cost her 4-year-old daughter her life.

Two weeks later, Burch saw her worst fears realized for another child and parents. A 3-year-old pre-K student with dairy allergies named Elijah Silvera died after eating a grilled cheese sandwich. The school gave it to him, despite knowing, as the family alleges, about the boy’s allergy. At the time of the incident, Elijah’s school also called his mother, and she rushed him to the hospital. But it was too late.

After Burch heard about this incident, and nothing from the school other than “it won’t happen again,” she decided to take matters into her own hands. Making her daughter’s lunches wasn’t enough.

Burch created a Change.org petition called “Allergy procedures in schools HAVE to change!!!” which she directed to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. After doing research, she learned that children from New York to Virginia to California have encountered similar issues with ignorance of food-allergy prevention while at school.

“This isn’t just one school or two. This is a nationwide problem,” Burch tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I wanted to raise awareness the only way I knew how. I knew the issue was big, but just how big is what I am finding out now. There are families all over the nation that are terrified to send their children to school because of reading the horror stories like mine.”

The petition calls for one simple thing: Policy, or the guarantee that school administrators, or people working with children, know the right thing to do when kids eat a food they are allergic to: Epinephrine first, then 911, then contacting parents. Because as Burch states, “every second counts.”

While many schools do require allergy training for teachers and staff, it’s completely the school’s or nursing institution’s undertaking. There are no universal or even state-level policies or certifications that require all childcare workers to undergo allergic-reaction training.

Guides are available, for parents, schools, and school nurses — both the CDC and National School Board Association have them — but there is no mandate that anyone has to follow them.

“A school doesn’t have to adopt those guidelines; it’s just to develop their own policy,” Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department State Health Services, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Those kinds of decisions are made at the legislative [level] in the state.”

He mentioned there is a Texas law in the works, but it’s only to require schools to stock up on Epinephrine injections should students not provide their own. And in many cases, the lack of universal oversight shows. A former camp counselor who agreed to speak anonymously said that when she worked at a camp, she was told not to worry about allergy training since the camp was allergy-free.

Another teacher said on the agreement on anonymity that she received no training at all on allergies. “[I was] just told no food can be in the room with whatever ingredients. If there’s an emergency, call the school nurse,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Michael Pistiner, MD, the director of Food Allergy Advocacy Education and Prevention at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, says awareness is the key to making change.

“The dialogue now follows the tragedy,” he says. “A preventable strategy with solid policies and solid education [is needed.]”

He pointed out that federal implementation wouldn’t be that difficult for schools, just a little harder for preschools that sometimes operate in different environments, like a person’s home. But where training happens, it saves lives.

New York preschool teacher and graduate student Tracey Hickey tells Yahoo Lifestyle that her school does require a comprehensive training program, including covering symptoms of anaphylaxis, procedure for handling a situation (i.e., one person calls 911 and then the parent while another administers the EpiPen and stays with the child), and how to use the EpiPen.

“They had a demo EpiPen — no needle or drugs — to practice with, so you’d know how much pressure to use and how you’d know if it worked,” she says. “We all had to demonstrate. Beyond that, we all know the symptoms of anaphylaxis and who has what allergies in our class.”

But Hickey agrees it shouldn’t be an option. “The thing is, mistakes happen. Parents make them, and childcare providers make them,” she says. “But for the teachers not to call 911 in a timely manner or administer an EpiPen, that’s not just ordinary human error; that’s multiple levels of failure. That’s incompetence at nearly every step.”

That’s where the petition comes in. In less than a week, the Change.org form has received nearly all 35,000 signatures it set out to get, and Burch isn’t lowering her voice any time soon.

“I never want to read an article that a child died again because the school didn’t know any better, or didn’t do the right thing by a child after they were introduced to something they are allergic to, especially when I know there is something I can do to prevent it,” Burch writes in her petition.

Her message to the Department of Health and Human Services, specifically, is simple: “How many children/adolescents have to die or suffer before we change the way things are done?”

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