Managing Dairy Allergy at School: Steps to Success
Longtime food allergy advocate Maria Acebal, a director of FARE, the food allergy research and education organization, and former CEO of FAAN (its predecessor), sets out four essential steps to safeguarding your child at school.
1. Get a Doctor’s Note. A written food allergy and anaphylaxis emergency care plan must be filled in and signed by your child’s physician and given to the school administration. For dairy allergy, it should distinguish the condition from intolerance and emphasize the seriousness of a reaction. If your child takes part in a school meal program, a medical diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening dairy allergy will also set the wheels in motion for dairy-free meal accommodations.
2. Train Staff. Every school year, all staff who might interact with your child (including specialty teachers for art, language, gym and librarians) should be instructed on how to avoid allergic reactions, how to recognize one if it happens and what to do if an emergency occurs.
3. Establish Epinephrine Access. Auto-injectors for your child need to be on hand with the school, and all staff must be made aware of their availability. Let the school know that, under the 2013 School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, they are encouraged to keep stock epinephrine auto-injectors on hand.
4. Create a Food Allergy Policy. Work with your child’s school to create a written policy that addresses how food allergies will be managed in the classroom and lunch room, covering everything from surface sanitization to how birthdays will be celebrated. Address non-food items that may contain milk protein, including art supplies and dustless chalk, which can get on hands or into the air, promoting respiratory issues.
The 504 Plan: A Popular Tool
You can also seek to work with your child’s school on a more formal basis. The 504 plan, which is named for Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, is a legal document that supports the rights of students with disabilities. They must get equal access to education at schools that receive federal financial assistance. The section prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability that “substantially limits one or more major life activities”.
But can an allergy to milk be considered a “disability” for the purpose of creating a 504 plan? Yes, according to Tess O’Brien-Heinzen, an attorney with expertise on 504 plans and issues under the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and related legislation. The Office for Civil Rights, the government body that enforces Section 504, she explains, “has considered for a number of years that food allergy is what’s called a ‘hidden disability’.” The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 further clarified that “eating” is considered a major life activity. Then in a landmark case in 2012 involving a small university, the Department of Justice also sided with student needs, helping to categorize food allergy as a disability.
Some physicians and advocates do not consider a 504 plan necessary. However, parent advocate Kelly Rudnicki is a strong promoter of 504 plans, especially when it comes to a challenging allergy such as dairy. “It makes no sense to have access to a legal document that can help to keep your child safe in the classroom and not use it,” she says. “It holds the school accountable.”
How do you get a 504 plan? Parents should first make a request, in writing, to the 504 coordinator of the school. The school should then arrange a 504 team meeting for you and your allergic child that includes: the coordinator, principal, school nurse, counselor and all teachers involved. The team will evaluate the evidence, which includes a doctor’s letter and information about previous allergic reactions, to determine if the allergy qualifies as a disability. If a 504 plan is approved, there will then be negotiations over plan specifics to provide for the safety and inclusion of your child.
What should be included in the 504 plan? “Think about a student who walks through the door at 7:35 in the morning,” says O’Brien-Heinzen. “Where do they go every minute of their day and what sorts of risks do they have where they are?” A parent can ask to include language in the 504 plan to have the teacher wipe down the child’s desk and keyboard prior to use; to display a sign in the classroom and on a cafeteria table stating “milk-free”; to have all children wash their hands after lunch and a snack; to give them notice of school activities that may involve food; and to have the entire staff trained on auto-injector use.
What happens after the 504 plan is written? Compliance must be consistently encouraged and monitored by parents, school staff and the allergic child. Having your child involved with the 504 team meeting allows him to learn self-advocacy when the plan isn’t followed and to report back to the team on what works well. O’Brien-Heinzen says she always counsels this: “Nobody knows their day better than they do.” If issues arise, procedural safeguards are provided to aid in resolution before filing a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.
Writer Nicole Smith is the founder of Allergicchild.com.