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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It's Nutty

Reading feeds my mind like oxygen feeds lungs. I have a voracious appetite for reading that borders on a dependency. It's difficult for me to just sit around and relax without feeling guilty that I'm wasting time that could otherwise be spent consuming information of all sorts - news, comedy, sports, narratives, fiction - you name it, except for mindless celebrity worship and tales of horror (and maybe weather), I'll read it.

I recently found an interesting story while rummaging through a compilation of educational articles. This is an example of a flash-point issue that impacts public school education. Our diverse, complex and interdependent society has produced many, many different intersections of perceived rights and wrongs. Virtually any and every social issue eventually seeps into the school in some fashion. Since public schools are operated with state and federal money that supplement the local tax base, the school becomes subject to legislation and policy from both levels of government. That is, compliance or the perception of non-compliance with applicable codes and statues form the basis for grievances that are often played out in either the formal environment of a courtroom or the informal and raucous court of public opinion. Meanwhile, until there is some resolution, the school awaits the outcome of vociferous debate on civil rights issues of race, gender, speech, due process, and the like.

This news story involves a school in Volusia County, Florida where the parents of children at Edgewater Elementary School are protesting the attendance of a child at the school with a severe, life threatening allergy to peanuts. The news story on CNN was accompanied by video of the protest. The parents claiming to be offended by the school's accommodation of the child, at the expense of their children having to not only avoid bringing anything with peanuts to school but also requiring preventative measures such as having the children wash their hands, vehemently express their opinion that the child should be home-schooled - like some outcast.

The school is thrust into the middle of arguments between those who cite the allergic child's right to a free, public education and those who feel that their child should not have their rights infringed upon by the needs of others. There are certainly other additional issues, such as the school's liability, appropriate accommodations, costs at a time of great economic constraints, and much more.

In a very simplistic perspective, the peanut allergy child has a right to a public school education, just like the rest of the children who attend the school, whereas there is no right that protects children bringing anything in for lunch or snack that they want. There are only 180 school lunches in the year that would otherwise include 1,095 meals at three meals per day for 365 days a year. I love peanut butter but I can adapt to this restriction without falling apart. There are many other opportunities to eat peanut butter.

Although I see kids bring food into school that I feel is not in their best interest (high calorie, fatty, junk foods and intensely sugar filled drinks and meals with little or no nutritional value) and may serve as a long form invitation to future medical issues (child diabetes, heart conditions exacerbated by obesity...) I cannot intervene other than to promote healthy food consumption in our health curriculum or ask the nurse to reach out to the parent or provide information in newsletters or at PTO meetings. The content of the lunchbox is a parental choice, or the responsibility of whomever packs the lunch for the child. But, that said, we can act to prevent children from bringing in food items with peanut/peanut oil... if it represents a potential danger to a child with an identified and diagnosed medical condition.

However, there is room for accommodation. The school where I served a principal for nearly twenty years prior to arriving at Heatly has a long history of meeting both the medical needs of children with peanut allergies and the interests of other children who enjoy foods with peanuts as an ingredient. Of the 1,040 learners in the K-6 elementary school, nine suffered from peanut allergies. It starts with exercising some common sense and consideration. Knowledge is vital. It's incumbent upon the school to provide up-to-date medical information related to the allergy. This must be conveyed to educate all learners and their parents, since the interaction among children in the cafeteria, at bake sales and class parties extends the threat of transmission beyond the walls of a single classroom. The nurse plays a critical role in communicating relevant information. Although most peanut allergies are triggered by ingestion, there are small numbers of children stricken with air-borne reactions. Those children in the latter group require more sophisticated and vigilant guidelines. It is not an incredible stretch from provisions schools make for other children with unique and special needs (i.e an elevator key for a child in a wheelchair, a scribe for someone with temporary loss of the ability to write, an interpreter for the hearing impaired,..)

The school provided a separate lunch table that was identified as peanut free. All tables were wiped down with a disinfectant immediately after the table was vacated and before the next group of diners arrived. Signs acknowledged "peanut free" classrooms. A letter was distributed before school began in September advising parents of children in classes with peanut allergy effected learners to please respect the needs of the child in the same manner they would want their own children treated. Hands were frequently washed (and why not, this also reduces transmission of germs that cause simple colds...and helped thwart H1N1) and handi-wipes were well stocked in the classroom and cafeteria. The buses were similarly off limits for peanut snacks. Parents and children were provided with recipes and examples of alternative snacks. The school lunch personnel separated peanut foods from alternatives offered to those with allergies. Everyone became conscious of food safety - and many become more interested in paying attention to what's actually in the food we eat.

The point here is the complex position public schools find themselves in as they seek to accommodate children with varied needs and interests, different pasts, presents and futures - within a dynamic environment greatly impacted by those outside the school in the form of policies, regulations, laws, litigation, social values, political perspectives, and economic realities. There are constant adjustments (think of the new challenges posed by emerging technology driven programs like social media that has spawned more opportunities for bullying...) for schools to navigate as they seek to provide and promote learning opportunities to prepare graduates for college, career, and citizenship. Sometimes the intrusions appear as solid brick walls that impede the progress and intent of the schools, most of the time the challenges are inconvenient speed bumps.

Not long ago there was a popular television commercial aggressively touting the new flashy style and energetic breed of cars produced by Chrysler. The tag line after a display of the new features of the car was, "This isn't your dad's Chrysler!" Well, the public schools of today are definitely not, "your dad's schools!"

Perhaps that's why whenever I've been asked to reflect on my lengthy career as a school leader and cite the most profound change I've experienced during the three plus decades of service, I have surprised people who assume the response would be technology of finances. Instead I am quick to reply that the fact I can instantly recall the phone number of our school's legal representatives is the most distinct change. I am struck by the sharp contrast between my early years - when I simply contacted a local all-purpose lawyer for general advice on a legal matter facing the school - and the past fifteen years when I have consulted with a legal firm representing the school with specialists in a variety of specific educational issues - special education, personnel, contract negotiations, finance, litigation...

That's the reality of schools of today.

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