First Person

Allergic kids face stigma at school

Youngsters with severe food allergies confront issues that go beyond just avoiding some kid-pleasing foods like pizza, peanuts and cupcakes.

Image of cupcakes
PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Cupcakes are popular with students but pose problems for those with dairy and egg allergies.

Their needs may be forgotten by well-meaning classmates, teachers and parents of classmates. Some are bullied or scapegoated because their allergies impact what foods others may bring into the classroom.

And a few get so focused on avoiding an allergic reaction that they become overly fearful, averse to trying any new foods or unrealistically convinced that exposure will lead to death.

For many food-allergic children, class parties especially become tests of endurance in which they must either accept the physical discomfort of being around trigger foods or feel left out altogether.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Their parents – many of whom have struggled long and hard to figure out how to feed these children at home – are hoping that by educating teachers and others about food allergies, much itching, hives and nausea, as well as hurt feelings and resentment, can be avoided.

Julie Trone, a mom with a severely allergic son in Fort Collins, last year launched Allergy Free Table, a website with information about food allergies, suggested foods for class parties and information about how to prevent the bullying of allergic children.

“We’ve found a niche,” said Trone. “My hope is that all teachers will embrace this because sooner or later every teacher will have a child with food allergies in their classroom. It can be very difficult, but it can also be very easy.”

Students feel left out of festivities

An estimated one in 25 school children has some form of food allergy, and the incidence has been going up in the past decade.

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Trone’s son, Gavin, has multiple food allergies, including dairy and wheat. At the beginning of the school year, she met with his teacher, Alissa Poduska, to explain Gavin’s predicament and ask her help.

“I asked a lot of questions so I would know everything that’s possible to prevent there being any sort of issue,” said Poduska, who teaches third-graders at Bacon Elementary School in Fort Collins.

“Birthdays are always the biggest issue, and I sent a note out to all parents saying that we had some students with allergies so we couldn’t have the following things, but there are some awesome things that we can have.”

In addition, Poduska keeps a stash of allergy-friendly treats in her desk drawer. If someone brings in goodies for the class that Gavin should not eat, Poduska pulls the boy aside and quietly invites him to pick whatever alternate treat he would like.

But despite all her conscientiousness, even Poduska sometimes fails to recognize when Gavin feels left out. One day, her class won a pizza party.

“It didn’t even cross my mind that Gavin couldn’t eat pizza,” she said. “I was thinking about sugar and wheat. I thought everyone could eat pizza. Later, Gavin’s mom approached me and said Gavin’s feelings were hurt because I hadn’t talked to him about it in advance. I felt horrible.”

The next time pizza was served, Poduska asked Gavin what special treat he would like to have. And while all the other children were eating pizza, Gavin enjoyed a some McDonald’s French fries.

In Poduska’s classroom, Trone has been active in teaching her fellow parents about the needs of food-allergic children and no one has objected to the limitations placed on the students. But elsewhere, that isn’t always the case.

Last month, some parents in the Volusia County school district in DeLand, Fla., picketed the school because they believed their children were spending too much time washing their hands and wiping their faces to protect a classmate with a severe peanut allergy. They carried signs saying “Our Kids Have Rights Too.”

Parents, others not always understanding

Greenwood Village mom Moiria Sangalis said she has never encountered that much hostility in Colorado. But she has felt resistance from school officials to restricting classroom treats, and she once had a heated argument with another mom over some muffins that mother brought to the class.

Sangalis’ son, Nick, has multiple severe allergies, including diary, eggs, tree nuts, shellfish and latex. Nick doesn’t even have to ingest the substances to suffer a reaction. Just being near them can cause him problems.

Nick Sangalis enjoys a special allergen-free birthday cake.
Nick Sangalis, who has severe food allergies, enjoys a specially-made birthday cake.

“From our experience, every school is so different. If the teacher isn’t supportive of you, everything will backfire,” said Sangalis. “Most of the time, they’ll work with you.

“But when Nick was in fourth grade, that’s when I started to feel the pressure from other parents. Maybe they didn’t want their child to be in class with mine. Maybe they felt they had a right to bring in whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Why do we even have to have so many parties? But food is such a big part of school. The principal at his school told me that having classroom parties really was part of the culture there.”

Nick, 11, still winces at the memory of yelling at a classmate who wanted to bring in a chocolate fountain to celebrate the completion of state CSAP exams.

“I could have handled that better,” he said. “I don’t know what people are thinking sometimes. They could be thinking about the greater good for the greater number of people. But it’s really not the greater good, is it? If one person isn’t having fun, if one person feels left out, then the whole celebration could be brought down because of one person feeling bad.”

Nick is now enrolled at Ricks Center for Gifted Children at the University of Denver, and he’s had no more problems. The school has been very supportive, and his classmates very thoughtful about his special needs.

“This year, we’ve had three or four birthday parties with cupcakes and they all brought me Oreos, which I thought was generous,” Nick said. “I don’t mind if other kids have it, as long as they don’t shove it in my face or touch me.”

For the past eight years, Sangalis has been president of MOSAIC or Mothers of Severely Allergic Infants and Children. The group’s website, www.mosaickids.org, lists resources including non-allergenic recipes kids will like and tips on advocating for school policies that protect allergic children.

In 2009, the Colorado General Assembly enacted legislation requiring every school district to develop a policy to manage the risks posed by food allergies.

Psychological hurdles confront allergic children

Even when schools and classmates are fully supportive, severely allergic children still face psychological hurdles.

Dr. Mary Klinnert, associate professor of pediatrics at Denver’s National Jewish Hospital, is 18 months into a two-year study to determine just what those hurdles are, and how families can help them cope both physically and emotionally with their allergies.

“What we’ve seen is that there really is a broad range of people’s understanding of what they’re dealing with,” Klinnert said. “Some people really understand, and some are kind of vague on some important aspects. And there’s a broad range as far as the lengths to which they will go to avoid allergens.”

Dr. Mary Klinnert at Denver’s National Jewish Hospital seeks food-allergic children ages 6-12 to interview. Contact her at [email protected]

Klinnert said some children are so fearful of having an allergic reaction that it gets in the way of living life.

“Sometimes we see kids who have a lot of food aversion,” she said.

“They don’t like to eat new foods at all. Or maybe they don’t eat enough because of a fear of eating something they might have a reaction to. And we also see kids not wanting to be independent from their parents at an age-appropriate level.”

Klinnert noted that many food-allergic children haven’t had reactions since they were very young, and thus don’t remember what a reaction feels like. They need to be reminded that a reaction usually means an itchy throat or a rash or hives, which isn’t pleasant but neither is it fatal.

“Some kids need help with the idea that having a reaction isn’t the end of the world. Many kids really believe that if they have a reaction they will die,” Klinnert said.

“This is a tough subject for parents, but it’s really important that they know that 99.999 percent of kids who have allergic reactions, they handle it and they’re fine. The chances of them dying only happens if a whole series of things go wrong. We’ve probably talked to kids too much about how life-threatening their food allergies are. For a lot of kids, I think we might have gone overboard.”

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.