Food Allergy Bullying on the Rise
So why are allergic kids targeted? Bullying is typically driven by an intolerance toward difference, a sense of entitlement or the liberty to exclude others, according to Barbara Coloroso, the renowned parenting expert and best-selling anti-bullying author. A food allergy certainly makes a child different, and the difference is emphasized by the necessary routine precautions, like carrying an auto-injector and reading food labels, which are part of these kids’ lives.
Sicherer speculates that curiosity may be a factor in bullying by younger children who are told their classmate could get very sick from eating peanuts – yet he looks perfectly normal.
That’s how Jackson’s mom, Lisa Tichenor, sees the motivation of the kids who threatened her son. “I think that those children were truly curious,” she says. “They don’t get it. They don’t get that people can really get sick or worse if something like that happens.”
Coloroso, however, stresses that curiosity does not make the behavior innocent. “Waving a peanut butter sandwich in front of somebody and laughing at it is bullying. It’s cruel. It’s wanting to cause them pain,” says the Colorado-based author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander; who is also a special-education teacher and has dealt with allergy bullying in her classroom.
Coloroso says the responsibility for bullying behavior by kids belongs to the grownups. She puts it simply: “We as adults have not given them good instructions” – by which she means respect, acceptance of differences and what she calls “deep caring.”
Indeed, you don’t need to look far to find examples of grownups having trouble accepting allergy differences. In one case that made headlines in 2011, some parents picketed their school in Edgewater, Florida, to protest that measures to protect one allergic student were causing unnecessary disruptions for other kids. While there will always be debate over where to draw the allergy safety line, it’s not hard to see where some kids pick up the idea that singling out allergic classmates is OK.
Adding to that influence is the occasional insensitive (and sometimes intentional) remark by a teacher or other adult who singles out an allergic child for spoiling the fun: “We can’t have cake at our party because Teddy is allergic, so we’ll just have juice instead.” The bullying survey found that a shocking 21 percent of incidents were attributed to teachers or other school staff. (Read about teacher bullying at www.allergicliving.com/teacherbully).
In lunchrooms and other spaces where kids and food mix at school, arrangements and supervision vary among jurisdictions and among schools. There’s no single way to ensure safety for allergic children, says Chris Weiss, the former vice-president of advocacy and government relations at FAAN, and a co-author of the bullying survey. “A lot of it depends on the age of the kids, the configuration of a cafeteria, the size of the staff,” Weiss says.
Some schools ask all students to keep lunches and snacks peanut- and nut-free; this is more likely to be the case in the jurisdictions that have legislation (such as New York, New Jersey or Ontario, Canada) or guidelines for managing anaphylaxis in schools. In schools where peanuts and nuts are allowed, the most common lunchroom arrangement seems to be a designated table for allergic kids. In other schools, children eat in their classrooms.
No setting is bully-proof, but close supervision by trained adults helps most, as Tracie Michelson learned when a kindergarten classmate ate peanut butter (which he wasn’t supposed to have) then ran over to breathe on her son Zach, who was sitting at the allergen-free table at his school near Nashville, Tennesee.
The teacher assistants who normally watched over the lunchroom were busy that week supervising standardized testing, so the job had fallen to parent volunteers. Michelson won’t take that chance again; Zach will eat in the principal’s office next time the regular lunchroom supervisors are not on duty.
Next page: Consequences to the victim