School Safety Tips for Your Child with Food Allergies
How to craft a 504 plan for your child
A 504 plan is designed to ensure protection and accommodation for your celiac or food-allergic child in and around the classroom.
What’s a 504 Plan?
A 504 plan originates from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. According to the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the law requires a school district to provide a “free appropriate public education” to every qualified student with a disability. All schools that receive financial assistance from the federal government are subject to this mandate.
To qualify for a 504 plan, a student must have a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This impairment, defined as “any physiological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or anatomical loss affecting body systems,” includes the digestive system and the immune system. Thus, a 504 plan is often used for children with food allergies and celiac disease.
Your child’s 504 plan is a legal document that must be reviewed every year. There’s no standard 504 plan required by law; each school district handles it a little differently.
Write a Letter
To make the case for a 504 plan, assemble background information about your child’s needs and develop a list of accommodations you’d like the school to make. Then draft a letter to the school’s 504 team, including your child’s teacher, the school nurse, the 504 coordinator, the director of food services and anyone else involved. (See below.) Include the following basics in your letter:
Contact Info List your name, your child’s name and your contact information.
The Goal State that you want to avoid gluten or your child’s food allergen, as well as prevent cross-contamination.
Your Child’s Medical Condition Include a paragraph that generally describes celiac disease or your child’s food allergy. How it is treated? What food items must be avoided? How long has the child had the condition? How much does the child understand about it? (For example, can your child read labels or find hidden allergens in an ingredient list?) What does cross-contamination mean? What happens if your child accidentally ingests gluten or a trigger food?
Doctor’s Note Include medical documentation from a licensed physician. This written statement should verify your child’s disability (celiac disease or food allergy), explain why it restricts your child’s diet, state the major life activity affected by the disability (eating, learning, concentrating), indicate that exposure could cause intestinal damage, nutrient malabsorption or anaphylaxis, and list the foods that should be avoided and substituted during meals and snacks. It must be made clear that exposure to gluten or the food allergen will adversely impact your child’s education.
Training Indicate what you feel is needed to educate the school’s staff, promote overall awareness and prevent a reaction. Examples include instructions on label reading, hand washing, cross contamination, positive role modeling and effective ways that staff can talk with your child and others about the issue.
Classroom Events Explain how you’d like to handle birthdays, classroom parties and school lunches. Can the teacher communicate in advance about all classroom events that include food? Will you provide safe snacking alternatives? Will your child be given special bathroom privileges?
School Activities Wherever your child may be in and around the school, there should be a plan to keep him or her safe. With this in mind, outline your wishes for the school nurse, the art room, the school bus and field trips. Don’t forget the cafeteria. Will your child need special school lunches or access to a microwave?
Make a Plan
Your letter establishes the legal groundwork for how the school will work with you and your child. After it’s submitted, the school will organize a meeting with you, all involved school staff and the 504 team members, including teachers, administrators and food service personnel. Based on this meeting, the school will finalize your child’s 504 plan in writing so that you can sign off on it.
Use this meeting to set the stage for cooperative and supportive communication with your child’s 504 team. Open and honest discussion throughout the school year will be pivotal for your child’s safety.
Here’s the letter that Kelly Kurzhal, creator of raisingjackwithceliac.com, wrote on behalf of her son Jack, a 2nd grader with celiac disease. The letter was the basis for Jack’s 504 plan. Kurzhal met with Jack’s teacher, school counselor and 504 plan coordinator to discuss the letter and to implement his 504 plan. For more about Jack’s story and celiac disease, visit raisingjackwithceliac.com.
Student’s Grade & Teacher’s Name
Re: Celiac Disease -- Individual Health Plan
cc: School Counselor/504 Coordinator
cc: School Principal
This letter is to inform you that our son Jack has celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that wreaks havoc on his body when gluten is ingested. For the past 6 years, Jack has been living a gluten-free lifestyle. Gluten-free living for celiacs is like insulin for diabetics. It’s what keeps Jack healthy.
Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley. It’s found in a wide variety of foods—cookies, breads, pastas, cereals, candy, snack foods and more. Because celiac disease is not an allergy, Jack will not be in immediate danger if he ingests gluten either accidentally or due to cross contamination. However, he will likely experience intestinal distress, as well as mood change, fatigue, diarrhea and headache. (We are still learning all the signs and symptoms of Jack’s accidental exposure to gluten.)
We need to make sure that Jack avoids gluten at all costs. I want him to have a great school year and I know you do, too. Here are a few things that will help you in the classroom.
Cross Contamination Please be aware of any wheat products in the classroom. From sandwich crumbs to art supplies/crafts and Play-Doh (which contains wheat), it’s important to be alert to Jack’s surroundings and his work surfaces. I encourage a lot of hand washing. I’m sure you won’t be playing with Play-Doh very much, but please give me a heads up when you plan to do so.
Restroom Breaks Jack needs to be excused to use the restroom on an “as needed” basis. He may have an urgency to go, so when he says he needs to go, he needs to be excused. There’s no holding it, when it comes to celiac disease. And sometimes, he may be in the restroom a little longer than most; that’s just how his system works.
Birthdays Please let me know how you plan to celebrate birthdays, whether once a month or if children are allowed to bring in cupcakes. This allows me to prepare accordingly and have something for Jack on the days that special treats are brought in. If children are allowed to bring in treats on their actual birthday, could you please provide a list of birthdates for me?
Special Celebrations Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, other holidays, pizza parties, etc.—let’s make sure to communicate. I’ll always provide something for Jack. I’d also like to make gluten-free cookies and cupcakes for the whole class, if possible.
Field Trips Please let me know in advance about any field trips. What activities will be taking place (crafts, etc.) and what special treats will be eaten? I can provide something gluten-free for him to take along.
If you have any questions about Jack’s diet or about certain foods he can or can’t eat, please don’t hesitate to call me. Thank you so much for working with me to make Jack’s school year gluten-free friendly!
For more information about implementing a 504 plan for your student with celiac disease, visit BeyondCeliac.org and search "504 Plan." For legal recommendations regarding your child's 504 plan, consult an attorney.
Managing editor Erica Dermer (email@example.com) is author of Celiac and the Beast: A Love Story Between a Gluten-Free Girl, Her Genes and a Broken Digestive Tract.