Food Allergy Bullying: The Stakes Are High

in Students’ Corner, Your Stories
Published: January 9, 2014

Charlotte Jude Schwartz headshotFrom cyberspace to the schoolyard, bullying can occur anywhere in any shape or form. I know, because it happened to me.

One warm afternoon at lunch, I decided to eat with my group of friends outside in the sunshine away from the (nut-free) cafeteria. I trailed off from my backpack – which contained my lunchbox – for mere minutes, taking care to zip it up before going, and even then not drifting very far. I talked with my friends, laughed, and walked the asphalt track. I then circled back to my backpack – and saw my lunchbox out on the table.

Wait a sec. Hadn’t I closed it before walking off? The bell rang, and I figured my recollection was foggy and didn’t think much of it. I shoved the lunchbox back into my backpack, and the rest of my day went smoothly. I had my afternoon classes; the usual.

Back home, I handed off my lunchbox to my mom, as I do daily. She’ll clean it out and prepare for the next school lunch. Suddenly, she uttered a sound in a concerned voice. She looked spooked, and together we saw that there was a crumbled up cookie with chunks of chocolate spread all inside my lunchbox. I was astonished, scared – and baffled.

My mom asked me to carefully recall the day: when had I been separated from my lunchbox? Didn’t I keep it with me? I promised her again and again that I hadn’t eaten or been offered food by anyone. She then gave the mystery cookie a taste test and confirmed: it was “salty and nutty”. I’m allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.

Taking Action

We made a plan: my mother explained that she and I were going to talk to my principal and security team at my school to figure out what happened and who the culprit was. We brought the lunchbox with us. At my school, there are security cameras throughout the hallways and in the yard. But outside, the multiple cameras pan back and forth which means it takes additional time to look through the time codes to see everything.

But actually, I had an idea about someone who had been bothering me and my friends the day before. Although it was difficult, I spoke up and shared the information with my mom and the school staff. My mother explained to me that this was a crime. She told me that whoever was responsible for this “prank” could have poisoned me, potentially making me go into anaphylactic shock. The police could be called and it could be formally investigated. I did not realize this until she told me.

My close friends rallied around me and I leaned on them for support. My school took the incident very seriously and performed a rigorous investigation, and even put up food allergy bullying posters everywhere with the direct threat: “Food allergies can be life-threatening, so putting allergens near someone allergic on purpose is a crime, and punishable.”

My school is has a strict privacy policy for handling circumstances like this but, rest assured, they came up with an inventive strategy to catch the culprit. One of the security team’s suggestions was to “stage” my lunchbox again a few days later under surveillance, and see if there was a repeat. Another good idea was to check out some of the students’ Instagram and Facebook pages to see if there was online chatter.

In the end, the school took a direct route and interviewed the students who were at the tables closest to mine, and a few people in particular, based on my hunches. We did come to a very quiet – and satisfying – conclusion with the student responsible, who agreed that it had been a mistake and a terrible prank that could have had dire consequences. The school nurse also put together a plan for an school assembly focusing on food allergy bullying.

From then on, my circle kept watch over me at lunch, and one buddy even reprimanded me: “Don’t leave your lunchbox anywhere again!” I haven’t, I promise.

Next: I will not be silenced