Know Your Rights
In Thomas’ situation, the bullying was fed by an unstable school environment. Then to make matters worse for Thomas, Garrow says, the school bungled the emergency. The principal, assistant principal and school nurse were not on campus at the time of the incident; the clinic aide was at lunch; the office staff couldn’t find Thomas’ emergency action plan because they had misfiled it; they didn’t immediately administer epinephrine and instead waited for Garrow, who happened to be working from home that day, to arrive at the school clinic.
After some more missteps, the school told Garrow that they would comply with Thomas’ IHP and that they would move him to another classroom. But it was too little too late for Garrow, who didn’t feel her son would be safe in the school. So she placed Thomas in a private school for the remainder of the year. But as a single mother with two kids, Garrow knew she couldn’t continue to afford the private school tuition. For third grade, she asked that her son to be transferred to another public school in the same district.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, schools must offer students with disabilities, including those with life-threatening food allergies, a “free appropriate public education.” If the school district can’t provide such a program and the student is placed in a private school, the district has financial responsibility.
As a FAAN vice president, Garrow understood her rights. She told the superintendent: “I know I can still press charges against the boy who did this to my son and I know I can make the district responsible for paying my son’s tuition at a private school, because his rights were violated in one of your schools. I want my son transferred to another school and I want to know what you’re going to do to make this happen.”
The transfer was signed, sealed and delivered the next day. “It’s sad that you have to go that route, when you feel you have to threaten people in order to make a change,” says Garrow, who kept meticulous documentation with names and dates of every bullying incident and of the school’s noncompliance with Thomas’ IHP. She recorded every time she was called by the school and every time she had to go into the school office.
Garrow now has a 504 Plan for Thomas, as well as FAAN’s Food Allergy Action Plan. “To stay educated and on top of it and to keep advocating for your child’s rights is the way to go. You have to keep doing it until it’s right,” she says.
As Thomas started third grade, the emotional effects of the bullying in second grade continued to afflict him. His grades declined. He was combative and inattentive. He acted out in school toward his teacher and at home toward his mother and sister. Then in October, he broke down while driving in the car with his mother.
“He had a meltdown and said, ‘I just want to kill myself. I just want to die because of my food allergies.’ I stopped immediately in the middle of the road and said, ‘What did you just say?’ He was crying and saying, ‘You don’t have to worry about taking one wrong bite and it killing you. Someone tried to hurt me last year and they knew it could kill me. And I’m only in 3rd grade, Mommy. I’m only 8 years old,’” Garrow says.
Over the next three months, Thomas twice more repeated that he wanted to hurt himself, that he wanted to die.
Evaluations with a psychologist and psychiatrist determined Thomas had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), along with depression and anxiety that stemmed from the bullying he endured in second grade.
“No child should ever have to go through bullying. No matter what, it’s unacceptable. And to be bullied with something that can kill you, it’s even worse,” Garrow says. “When you see your child going through this, you wish you could take all their pain away and make everything better. Then to think that they’re having thoughts of hurting themselves and not wanting to be here—it’s a total heartbreak I can’t even explain.”
Next: Warning Signs