Food Allergy Bullying

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How to recognize the signs of bullying and protect your child from insensitive classmates.

A classmate smeared peanut butter on his locker in middle school. A fifth-grade teacher threatened to give him a zero if he didn’t participate in a science experiment featuring peanut butter. A school parent ambushed him with an ultimatum: either sign a liability waiver in case he experienced anaphylaxis during a high school graduation party or don’t participate.

Throughout his childhood, food-allergy bullying was common for Zachary Chelini of Reno, Nevada, who is allergic to peanuts, bananas and melons. Threats and behaviors from students and adults made him feel unsafe, pressured and excluded.

“Food-allergy bullying happens when children and teens with food allergies are teased, ridiculed or even threatened or assaulted with food they are severely allergic to,” says Tanya Bumgardner, spokesperson for Kids with Food Allergies (KFA), a support community for families with food allergies.

The effects can be quite damaging, both physically and emotionally. Chelini suffered an anaphylactic reaction because of the fifth-grade science experiment. He says the experience strengthened his resolve to speak up. When it came to the graduation party, he didn’t sign the waiver. Instead he brought his own food and had a trusted contact throughout the evening in case anything occurred.

“I felt targeted, dehumanized—but ultimately, an overwhelming feeling of courage,” says Chelini, now 24. He wants to use his experience to raise awareness about food-allergy bullying.

“Each individual living with food allergies has the right to a safe and respectful environment,” he says.

bullying at school

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No Appetite for Bullying

To heighten awareness and find solutions to food-allergy bullying, pharmaceutical company kaléo, maker of the Auvi-Q epinephrine auto-injector, launched the No Appetite for Bullying initiative in October 2017. The program is a partnership of four national food allergy advocacy organizations: Allergy & Asthma Network, Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT), Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) and KFA.

“We think we can be more productive if there’s a locking of arms,” says Eric Edwards, MD, PhD, kaléo co-founder and vice president of innovation, research and development.

“With roughly two children in every classroom affected by food allergy, it’s critically important to strengthen our educational efforts,” says James R. Baker, Jr., MD, CEO and chief medical officer of FARE. “Our hope is that we can prevent cases of food-allergy bullying by bringing attention to the problem and conveying the seriousness of food allergy and anaphylaxis.”

What to Do to Stop Bullying

1. Educate your community and raise awareness.

Chelini says bullying is due to a lack of education about the severity of food allergies. Without any personal experience with food allergies, “it never crosses kids’ minds that their PB&J or their trail mix could cause such devastating harm,” he says.

“Learning about food allergies can help other children better understand the condition and make it seem less strange to them,” says KFA’s Bumgardner.

Educating others can range from teaching a friend the signs of anaphylaxis and showing them how to use an epinephrine auto-injector to asking schools to instruct students about food allergies and bullying. Bus drivers, adults in charge of after-school activities and camp leaders can also benefit from a primer on food allergies and bullying. Parents can encourage teachers, coaches and caregivers to plan inclusive food-free celebrations and activities.

2. Foster open communication with your child.

Daily conversations with open-ended questions work best: “Who did you sit with at lunch?” and “Who did you play with at recess?”

3. Know the warning signs of school bullying.

Talk with your child right away if you notice any signs of bullying, such as:

▶ Not wanting to go to school/activities

▶ Not wanting to ride the bus

▶ Depression or withdrawal

▶ Changes in eating and sleeping habits

▶ Unexpected drop in grades

▶ Lost or destroyed belongings

▶ Unexplained injuries

4. Take action against your child’s bully.

It’s important to seek help to stop the bullying—but the approach can differ depending on the situation.

“There’s no one way to handle a food-allergy bully. You may need to work with your child’s school, childcare provider or sports and activity leaders to find the right solution,” Bumgardner says.

▶ Empower Your Child. Children should know what bullying is, understand that it’s unacceptable and tell an adult who can help, Bumgardner says.

▶ Meet with School Officials. FAACT recommends that parents report bullying incidents in person to school administrators. Request the meeting in writing and send a follow-up letter afterward to summarize the meeting and document your concerns.

▶ Revise 504 Plan or IEP. A bullying incident can be reviewed as part of the allergic child’s individual 504 or IEP accommodations with the school, adding language to address bullying issues.

▶ Create a Buddy System. Kids who are bullied can benefit from having a buddy system and staying with a group of trusted friends, especially in the lunchroom, at recess and while walking home from school, FARE says. Kids should also identify a trusted adult they can talk to.

▶ Consider Reporting to Local Authorities. Depending on the age of the children involved and seriousness of the incident (physical injury or threat of it), local authorities may need to be involved. In December 2017, a 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl was accused of rubbing pineapple on her hand and high-fiving a classmate known to have a severe pineapple allergy, sending the victim to the local hospital where she was treated and released. The perpetrator was charged with aggravated assault; two other teens involved in the incident were charged with criminal conspiracy, among other charges.

Contributor Wendy Mondello is a health writer. She has a teen with asthma and multiple food allergies.