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School and Allergies, Asthma

Food Allergy Bullying on the Rise

Elementary school pupil being bulliedJackson Tichenor was scared. The fourth grader from Stillwater, Minnesota, was walking back to class after lunch when a couple of students ran up to him. “We ate peanuts! We ate peanut M&M’s. And we’re going to breathe on you!” they said. As they leaned in, Jackson, 10, thought the peanuts could trigger an allergic reaction, and that no one would know how to help.

He fled to find the school nurse – as his mom had told him to do if he ever felt unsafe at school.

Cheryl Dorsey was volunteering on a first-grade field trip with her daughter Anna’s class in Huntington Beach, California, when a girl took a sandwich from her lunch bag and waved it in Anna’s face.

“I brought peanut butter; you can’t eat peanut butter!” she chanted. Shaken, Dorsey quickly moved her daughter, who is allergic to dairy, peanuts, tree nuts and sunflower seeds, to a picnic spot away from her classmates. And then she quietly told the other girl, “It is not nice to bully people.”

Bullying isn’t nice, and can be downright dangerous when it’s coupled with the risk of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition that can be set off by trace amounts and accidental ingestion. A study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in October 2010 found that an astounding one in three children with food allergies has experienced bullying, harassment or teasing because of their allergies – most of it occurring in the supposed safety of school.

From the humiliation of taunts like “peanut kid” to the terror of an allergic reaction, the emotional impact of bullying just adds to the stress carried by allergic kids – and their parents. What’s more, says the survey’s lead author, Dr. Scott Sicherer, comparison to an earlier study showed that food-allergic children in Grades 6 to 10 were more than twice as likely to be bullied as non-allergic students.

While the prevalence of allergy bullying seems high, it didn’t surprise Sicherer, an allergist and professor of pediatrics with the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He has been hearing bullying stories for years from the kids and parents he sees in his practice. Sicherer even speculates that, since the roughly 350 responses to the survey were almost entirely from parents, there may be even more incidents than the data captured, as some kids don’t tell.

(The survey grouped the terms bullying, harassment and teasing in order to cover the big picture, so it did not isolate bullying in its specific sense: repeated behavior that is intended to harm, occurring where there is an imbalance of power. However, the survey did find that the behavior was repeated in 86 percent of cases.)

Despite the numbers, the deliberate targeting of kids with food allergies seems to slip under the radar of many in the education system. We raised the question with about a dozen experts from across North America, including teachers, principals, an anti-bullying parent advocate, a school board trustee, and a safe-schools supervisor. All were highly aware of both anaphylaxis and bullying issues, but none had heard of the link between the two.

Ask someone in the allergy community, however, and the floodgates open. Parents have traded harrowing stories on the Allergic Living Facebook page: a bully licking an allergic child’s pencils and erasers after consuming an allergen; one child chasing another with his allergen; students handing out a packaged snack in class and refusing to let an allergic child read the label. Staffers at the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (now known as FARE) and at Anaphylaxis Canada also report hearing numerous stories of bullying.

Next page: Why allergic kids are targeted

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.