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How far should schools go to accommodate food allergies?

An Ontario mother's human rights complaint that her daughter's elementary school didn't do enough to protect against an allergic reaction to eggs and dairy products is raising an important question, one that has been central to several lawsuits in the United States: How far should schools be required to go to accommodate food allergies?

As a response to the six-year-old's allergies, Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Elementary school in Hamilton did take some steps – instituting a no-cheese pizza day, suspending the milk program for a time in the fall and sending a letter home to inform parents.

But it wasn't enough, says Lynne Glover, whose daughter has experienced nine incidents of anaphylactic shock.

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Glover told the CBC that her daughter, Elodie, was surrounded by egg and milk products almost daily – because of the lunches her classmates brought to school.

"It's terrifying. Any parent with a food-allergic child knows the feeling," she said. "If a child showed up with a peanut butter sandwich, they wouldn't be allowed to sit in the classroom and eat it. If somebody showed up to Elodie's classroom with a cheese sandwich, then they just sat at their desk and ate it."

According to the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board's official policy, the school can't "guarantee" an environment free of allergens, but will make "every reasonable effort" to prevent exposure. Students with allergies are also meant to have an individual emergency plan in the event of a serious reaction.

But what counts as a " reasonable effort?" Glover is not the first parent to put that question to the legal test.

Last August, a Michigan family filed a lawsuit with a U.S. federal court arguing their son's peanut allergy made him the subject of bullying from students who blamed him for "treat" restrictions in class, and teachers who singled him out as the reason behind the rules. (The school has denied the allegations.)

A month earlier, also in Michigan, an appeals court decision dismissed a lawsuit from a parent arguing that she shouldn't have to comply with a nut-free policy implemented at her child's school to protect another student with serious allergies. According to that decision, the mother had informed the school that because of the "conflicting needs of my own child," she would not comply with the ban, alleging it violating hr own child's civil rights. The court ruled that the the school's policy had not been shown to be "arbitrary and therefore irrational."

In 2006, a Vancouver area mom filed a discrimination suit against a child-care centre that she claimed had refused to accept her six-year-old son because he has a peanut allergy. (The centre denied the allegations.)

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The Hamilon-area case is also sparking debate. Lenore Skenazy, the author of the book Free Range Kids, argues on her blog that as a society, instead of defending civil rights for "whole groups," we are pushing for individual rights, "no matter the cost to public good. …

"I'm sure if my kid were deathly allergic, I would be a wreck," she writes, "Even so, I'm pretty positive I would not expect a whole school to stop serving milk and eggs – two staples – just for my child's sake."

In October, Glover pulled her daughter from school. "It was just anxiety," her mother said. "It was fear."

Her lawsuit is an attempt to get a conversation going about what steps schools should take in response to cases like her daughter's. "So this is to make sure that we actual come to the table," she told the CBC, "and find a solution to this."

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More


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