RYE BROOK, N.Y. — The stickiest problem at Ridge Street Elementary School this year wasn’t discipline in the classroom. It was peanut butter in the lunchroom.
In a situation repeated in schools across the nation, families debated the right to safeguard a profoundly allergic child versus the right to eat a sandwich made with the all-American spread.
“We were obligated, legally and ethically, to be responsive to this child’s needs,” Principal Roberta Kirshbaum said.
“I would say 95 percent of our population became educated and supportive and the other 5 percent found it just didn’t fit with them.”
The discussion at Ridge Street started when a 5-year-old girl, so allergic she could die if she licked peanut butter from a fingertip, entered kindergarten.
Her parents alerted school officials in advance.
“I approached them with my daughter’s medical history, and knowing what needed to be done to make her safe,” said the mother, who asked not to be identified to protect her daughter’s privacy.
The girl couldn’t come into contact with peanut butter or anything with peanut oil.
So the school stopped selling peanut butter sandwiches and other peanut products, set up a “peanut-free table” covered with medical-exam paper in the lunchroom, and urged parents not to pack peanut-based lunches and snacks. If kindergartners came in with peanut lunches, they were sent to a separate room to eat.
Several parents objected, saying that their kids were being pressured into giving up peanut butter entirely and that they hadn’t had time to prepare.
Caryn Furst said her daughter has a metabolic disorder, needs protein at every meal and would eat only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“She had to have it,” Furst said. “A lot of parents are trying to be sensitive, but if you’ve got a child who wants peanut butter – that’s it.”
Ultimately, all sides came to terms. “We did a lot of education,” Kirshbaum said, “and we tried to compromise to the extent that nobody got hurt.”
Three million Americans are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, and about 75 die each year from reactions that lead to anaphylactic shock.
Thousands of kids now carry EpiPens – emergency doses of epinephrine in a spring-loaded injector – or store them with the school nurse.
The importance of protecting allergic children was vividly demonstrated last month in Spokane, Wash., when a 9-year-old boy, known to be allergic, died after being given a peanut butter cookie during a field trip.
Some other foods can kill, but nuts seem to be a prime danger. And it is peanut butter, long a favorite with kids and the adults who pack their lunches, that has put schools in the middle.
“It’s the all-American sandwich,” said Carla Blaha of Ossining, who founded a support group for parents after her son was diagnosed.
“You tell people, ‘This can kill my son’ and still it doesn’t click that actually something like peanut butter can kill someone.”
Some schools have declared themselves “peanut-free,” though most are coming up with a more moderate policy.
Schools that haven’t had a dangerously allergic pupil can expect one soon.
“I think every school at some time will be affected,” said Joseph Rowe, principal of Stedwick Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md., who was confronted two years ago with a severely allergic first-grader.
Peanut allergies among schoolchildren were “barely on the radar” a decade ago, said Dr. Robert Goldman, a New York allergist and immunologist who specializes in pediatric cases.
“Now I’m seeing a tremendous number of cases,” he said. “It seems like the incidence is really increasing. As to why, I don’t think anyone in the world could tell you for sure.”
Among the theories offered: Modern agriculture has changed the peanut itself, or the human immune system is trying to find something to attack in an age of vaccinations.
Skeptics suggest children are simply being taken to doctors and diagnosed more often.
Some children are so sensitive that they react to vapors from peanut shells. Dr. Clifford Bassett, an allergist at New York University Medical Center, said one-five-thousandth of a teaspoon of a food containing peanuts is enough to kill some people.
On the Net:
American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology: http://www.aaaai.org
American Peanut Council: http://www.peanutsusa.com
Distributor of EpiPen: http://www.deyinc.com
Family discussion board: http://www.peanutallergy.com/bbpage.htm