If a child has a severe food allergy, are schools required to accommodate it by law? The short answer is yes, though there are some caveats. Here’s a primer:
What’s the big deal?
To some, this might seem like a low-level concern. But food allergies can be much more than a simple annoyance—they can literally be life-threatening. Severe allergies, which are not uncommon, can trigger anaphylaxis and death within 30 minutes. While any allergy has the potential to be fatal, peanut allergies rank highest on the list of parental concerns—and with good reason, considering that peanut butter and jelly is a staple of the school-aged set.
In kids with severe peanut allergies, just sitting next to a classmate who’s eating a PB&J can trigger an allergic response. It’s no wonder, then, that parents of students with peanut allergies want peanuts and peanut butter banned from school lunches, a demand that sometimes puts them at odds with other parents, who say that their kids should be free to eat the PB&J sandwiches they love.
What does the law say?
In most schools, the law is on the side of those who want potentially fatal food allergens banned from lunches and snacks. Schools that receive federal funding, which includes all public schools and many private ones, are required to accommodate students with a disability under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—and the US Department of Education considers a food allergy that triggers life-threatening reactions a disability.
Even private daycares and private schools that don’t receive federal funds are on the hook for providing food allergen safety, as many of them are subject to the Americans with Disability Act, which extends the same sort of protection afforded to those attending schools covered by section 504.
At the local level, schools often work closely with the families and physicians of affected students to develop an individualized health plan each school year, whether a 504 plan is requested or not. The goals are to make school a safe place, to keep the allergen away from the child, and to have an emergency food allergy action plan on file in case of need. Required modifications to the learning environment may include everything from frequent handwashing, to completely peanut-free schools.
Also, nearly all US states have passed laws allowing schools to stock epinephrine, which can reverse the symptoms of anaphylaxis and can be administered to any child who needs it (known allergy or not). Parents of students with severe allergies often send personal epinephrine with their child anyway, to be stored in the nurse’s office or the classroom. Most states also now allow children who are old enough to keep their epinephrine auto-injectors with them at all times, so they can self-administer the drug if the need arises.
Safety for all
Some parents, with children who were luckier in the food allergen lottery, may wonder how it’s fair that nobody is allowed to bring peanut butter to school for the sake of a single child. They might be unhappy that their child, who wants peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day, has to sit at a separate table or in a separate room, again for the sake of one student. They may be angry that peanuts have been completely banned from their child’s school. Some have even filed lawsuits.
However, it helps to view the situation from the perspective of the allergic children, especially when their rights under federal law are understood. Every student is entitled to a safe learning environment. Working around an allergy won’t harm a child who doesn’t have the allergy, but not working around it could kill a child who does. The goal of accommodating children with disabilities, including food allergies, is to allow them the same access to a free and appropriate public education that children without disabilities enjoy.
For parents of kids with severe food allergies, knowing the law is on their side can be a source of comfort, especially since school administrators and staff want to ensure that such children are safe while in their care. For parents of kids without allergies, it also helps to know that these laws have been put into place to make sure all children can be in a safe place to learn and grow.
If you feel like your child is being exposed to food allergens at school and your concerns aren’t being addressed, a lawyer can help.