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SABRINA SHANNON died two days before the Liberal Party was voted in to power in Ontario. The party even had a line in its platform promising that, if elected, it would require public schools to have anaphylaxis plans based on Ontario-wide standards. Such words were encouraging to those who had been lobbying, even before Sabrina’s death, to pass a law requiring school allergy procedures.
Dave Levac, then a Liberal MPP from the Brantford area and a former high school principal, first introduced a private member’s bill to protect anaphylactic students in the province’s elementary and secondary schools in June 2002. While many schools had anaphylaxis plans in place, he thought it was dangerous that the standard was not been consistent.
His view is that uniform procedures will avoid “the arguing [between schools and parents], the gnashing of teeth in the protection of a child.”
His first bill died on the order paper under a Conservative government, as did his next effort. But with the Liberals barely sworn in to office, Levac’s third attempt – the proposed Act to Protect Anaphylactic Pupils – became Bill 3, numbered near the top of the pile.
The MPP and Cindy Paskey, then president of the Niagara region’s anaphylaxis association, had worked together since 2002 – organizing letter campaigns and petitions. They were elated as Bill 3 passed second reading on December 4, 2003. Now it just needed to go to a standing committee for a consultation process before a final reading enshrined it in law.
But for more than a year, the bill simply sat. By March 2005, Paskey and Laurie Harada, the executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada, were concerned: the clock was ticking on Bill 3 – if it didn’t get passed during this session of the legislature, it would die.
Then the Shannon family stepped in to help, and Sabrina soon became the human face of this legislation. Anaphylaxis Canada dubbed Bill 3, “Sabrina’s Law,” driving home Shannon’s point from that Ottawa press conference that no other child should suffer her daughter’s fate. Sara Shannon and Laurie Harada met with government officials who were receptive to their concerns.
After all the delays, the government suddenly convened the standing committee’s review in early May 2005. On May 16, 2005, the final vote on Bill 3 was held in the legislature. As parents and allergic children watched intently from the public gallery, all three parties voted in favor of Sabrina’s Law; it passed unanimously.
The law, which took effect January 1, 2006, requires school boards to have all principals implement anaphylaxis plans that include: strategies to reduce exposure to allergens, procedures to communicate to parents, students and employees about life-threatening allergies, and regular training on dealing with life-threatening allergies for teachers and staff.
In addition, principals are required to: develop an individual plan for each student at risk of anaphylaxis, maintain a file that lists that student’s prescriptions and emergency contacts and ensure that parents enrolling pupils supply information on a child’s allergies.
WHAT THE McGuinty government didn’t realize, is that the progress of Sabrina’s Law was not just watched by the Shannons and by relatives of anaphylactic students in Ontario, but it was also drawing attention across the United States and the rest of Canada.
In 2004, Sabrina’s aunt Kathleen Whelan wrote to Robert F. Kennedy, who was on the board of the Food Allergy Initiative (now FARE), the influential research and education organization. She had learned on the Internet that Kennedy has a son with peanut allergy and decided to let him know about Sabrina and how the family wanted to tell her story so that people would appreciate the gravity of anaphylaxis.
Kennedy seemed moved, and asked the former director of FAI to contact Whelan. The FAI would arrange to publish a two-page story that Whelan, a writer, had composed about Sabrina’s death in its annual gala journal. The organization’s gala in November 2004 was held at New York’s Plaza Hotel and was a star-studded affair. Among the guests were Kennedy, Ron Perelman, chairman of Revlon, and his then-wife, the actress Ellen Barkin. As guests dined on fine cuisine and raised tens of thousands of dollars for research, they also read Whelan’s words about her niece – and the hole her death left in so many hearts.
Sabrina’s family impressed FAI and Rachel Sanzari, who was then its administrator. “It’s just amazing that they took a tragedy and used it to make anaphylaxis an issue,” she said in May 2005. A law in a province the size of Ontario “will serve as a model here in the United States.” [Editor’s note: Today, there are several comprehensive state allergy laws and policies in the U.S., and a section in the federal FAAMA act of 2011.]
“No matter where you are,” said Anaphylaxis Canada’s Harada, “the issues are very similar, the emotional aspect and what’s going on in schools. So many jurisdictions are looking at what’s happening here because nobody seems to have any law. There are guidelines, there are directives, there are ministry of education policies, but there’s no law. This is precedent-setting.”
In the end, reminds Levac, Sabrina’s Law is about saving students’ lives. It’s a point that is hard to forget around Sara Shannon.
“I loved Sabrina so much. I miss her terribly,” she says. “We have to make sure this doesn’t happen to another child. When everything is done, everything is in place, every procedure, every emergency plan, then if a child dies, we can say, ‘there was nothing we could do’. But when we know that there is something we can do to prevent this, we can’t live in a world of denial.”
Sabrina’s Law fulfills a promise that Shannon desperately wanted to keep.
Reprinted from Allergic Living’s Spring 2005 issue. Updated February, 2011.