Food Allergy Bullying at School is on the Rise

in Features, Parenting & School
Published: September 17, 2012

Elementary school pupil being bulliedJACKSON Tichenor was scared. The fourth grader from Stillwater, Minnesota, was walking back to class after lunch when a couple of students ran up to him. “We ate peanuts! We ate peanut M&M’s. And we’re going to breathe on you!” they said. As they leaned in, Jackson, 10, thought the peanuts could trigger an allergic reaction, and that no one would know how to help.

He fled to find the school nurse – as his mom had told him to do if he ever felt unsafe at school.

Cheryl Dorsey was volunteering on a first-grade field trip with her daughter Anna’s class in Huntington Beach, California, when a girl took a sandwich from her lunch bag and waved it in Anna’s face.

‘I Brought Peanut Butter!’

“I brought peanut butter; you can’t eat peanut butter!” she chanted. Shaken, Dorsey quickly moved her daughter, who is allergic to dairy, peanuts, tree nuts and sunflower seeds, to a picnic spot away from her classmates. And then she quietly told the other girl, “It is not nice to bully people.”

Bullying isn’t nice, and can be downright dangerous when it’s coupled with the risk of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition that can be set off by trace amounts and accidental ingestion. A study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in October 2010 found that an astounding one in three children with food allergies has experienced bullying, harassment or teasing because of their allergies – most of it occurring in the supposed safety of school.

From the humiliation of taunts like “peanut kid” to the terror of an allergic reaction, the emotional impact of bullying just adds to the stress carried by allergic kids – and their parents. What’s more, says the survey’s lead author, Dr. Scott Sicherer, comparison to an earlier study showed that food-allergic children in Grades 6 to 10 were more than twice as likely to be bullied as non-allergic students.

While the prevalence of allergy bullying seems high, it didn’t surprise Sicherer, an allergist and professor of pediatrics with the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He has been hearing bullying stories for years from the kids and parents he sees in his practice. Sicherer even speculates that, since the roughly 350 responses to the survey were almost entirely from parents, there may be even more incidents than the data captured, as some kids don’t tell.

(The survey grouped the terms bullying, harassment and teasing in order to cover the big picture, so it did not isolate bullying in its specific sense: repeated behavior that is intended to harm, occurring where there is an imbalance of power. However, the survey did find that the behavior was repeated in 86 percent of cases.)

Despite the numbers, the deliberate targeting of kids with food allergies seems to slip under the radar of many in the education system. We raised the question with about a dozen experts from across North America, including teachers, principals, an anti-bullying parent advocate, a school board trustee, and a safe-schools supervisor. All were highly aware of both anaphylaxis and bullying issues, but none had heard of the link between the two.

Ask someone in the allergy community, however, and the floodgates open. Parents have traded harrowing stories on the Allergic Living Facebook page: a bully licking an allergic child’s pencils and erasers after consuming an allergen; one child chasing another with his allergen; students handing out a packaged snack in class and refusing to let an allergic child read the label. Staffers at the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (now known as FARE) and at Anaphylaxis Canada also report hearing numerous stories of bullying.

Allergy Bullying Causes

So why are allergic kids targeted? Bullying is typically driven by an intolerance toward difference, a sense of entitlement or the liberty to exclude others, according to Barbara Coloroso, the renowned parenting expert and best-selling anti-bullying author. A food allergy certainly makes a child different, and the difference is emphasized by the necessary routine precautions, like carrying an auto-injector and reading food labels, which are part of these kids’ lives.

Sicherer speculates that curiosity may be a factor in bullying by younger children who are told their classmate could get very sick from eating peanuts – yet he looks perfectly normal.

That’s how Jackson’s mom, Lisa Tichenor, sees the motivation of the kids who threatened her son. “I think that those children were truly curious,” she says. “They don’t get it. They don’t get that people can really get sick or worse if something like that happens.”

Coloroso, however, stresses that curiosity does not make the behavior innocent. “Waving a peanut butter sandwich in front of somebody and laughing at it is bullying. It’s cruel. It’s wanting to cause them pain,” says the Colorado-based author of The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander; who is also a special-education teacher and has dealt with allergy bullying in her classroom.

Coloroso says the responsibility for bullying behavior by kids belongs to the grownups. She puts it simply: “We as adults have not given them good instructions” – by which she means respect, acceptance of differences and what she calls “deep caring.”

Indeed, you don’t need to look far to find examples of grownups having trouble accepting allergy differences. In one case that made headlines in 2011, some parents picketed their school in Edgewater, Florida, to protest that measures to protect one allergic student were causing unnecessary disruptions for other kids. While there will always be debate over where to draw the allergy safety line, it’s not hard to see where some kids pick up the idea that singling out allergic classmates is OK.

When Teacher is a Bully

Adding to that influence is the occasional insensitive (and sometimes intentional) remark by a teacher or other adult who singles out an allergic child for spoiling the fun: “We can’t have cake at our party because Teddy is allergic, so we’ll just have juice instead.” The bullying survey found that a shocking 21 percent of incidents were attributed to teachers or other school staff.

In cafeterias and other spaces where kids and food mix at school, arrangements and supervision vary among jurisdictions and among schools. There’s no single way to ensure safety for allergic children, says Chris Weiss, the former vice-president of advocacy and government relations at FAAN, and a co-author of the bullying survey. “A lot of it depends on the age of the kids, the configuration of a cafeteria, the size of the staff,” Weiss says.

Some schools ask all students to keep lunches and snacks peanut- and nut-free; this is more likely to be the case in the jurisdictions that have legislation (such as New York, New Jersey or Ontario, Canada) or guidelines for managing anaphylaxis in schools. In schools where peanuts and nuts are allowed, the most common lunchroom arrangement seems to be a designated table for allergic kids. In other schools, children eat in their classrooms.

No setting is bully-proof, but close supervision by trained adults helps most, as Tracie Michelson learned when a kindergarten classmate ate peanut butter (which he wasn’t supposed to have) then ran over to breathe on her son Zach, who was sitting at the allergen-free table at his school near Nashville, Tennessee.

The teacher assistants who normally watched over the lunchroom were busy that week supervising standardized testing, so the job had fallen to parent volunteers. Michelson won’t take that chance again; Zach will eat in the principal’s office next time the regular lunchroom supervisors are not on duty.

Fear and Consequences

All bullying is serious, but when an anaphylactic child is targeted, of course, the results can be life-threatening. In the survey, more than half of those who reported bullying said it got physical, with acts such as waving or throwing the allergen at the allergic child. Fortunately, none of these incidents resulted in an anaphylactic reaction.

Still, the fear is real; responses to the survey showed that, in over 60 percent of the cases, bullying made the victims feel sad or depressed, as well as humiliated or embarrassed. Other research has shown the prolonged effects bullying can have kids, including depression, low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Tracie Michelson’s son was afraid to go to school the day after he was threatened.

Perhaps more worrying, older kids who are targeted may try to hide their allergies by not carrying an auto-injector, says Kyle Dine, who coordinates the youth advisory panel at Food Allergy Canada. “Especially with that teenage group, they don’t want to be embarrassed; they just want to fit in and be like all their friends.”

What Should Parents Do?

There’s no magic bullet to prevent or resolve bullying, but there’s a lot of consensus on what helps. And while anaphylaxis is an unwanted difference that can make kids a target, it’s never a good idea to hide or downplay that difference. In fact, the experts interviewed for this article were unanimous that the more everyone around your child knows about her allergy, the safer she’ll be.

Another unanimous point: Dealing with bullying is mostly the responsibility of adults; we shouldn’t expect the victims to handle it all by themselves.

Steps for Parents to Take:

Know what’s going on – Staying aware of what’s happening in your child’s life is not a problem for many parents of allergic kids, who tend to be highly involved at school, especially in the early years and on field trips.

But as your child grows older and you start to give him a little more space, he may not tell you if he’s being bullied; kids can be embarrassed or they may think no one can help anyway. So how do you know?

Coloroso says a child who is being bullied may show a sudden lack of interest in school or even refuse to go; his grades may drop; he may stop talking about peers and everyday activities, and may complain of stomach aches or headaches; his sleep patterns may change and he may withdraw from family time and other social activities.

It’s key to keep the lines of communication open with older kids, and direct interrogation is likely to make them clam up, says Sean Breen, a 21-year-old with anaphylactic allergies who endured a handful of bullying incidents during his school years in suburban Toronto. Breen encourages parents of teens to keep conversations frequent and casual, and listen carefully for hints that your child may need help.

Support your child – Your child needs an action plan in case of bullying or otherwise being made to feel unsafe; Jackson Tichenor knew, for example, that he should go to the school nurse. You’ll likely need to talk about the plan over and over; make sure your child understands that bullying needs to be reported to a trusted adult.

If your child is bullied, Coloroso says, she needs a strong and clear message that you believe in her, and that it’s not her fault. Breen echoes that, advising parents not to second-guess how their child has responded. “Being told, ‘You didn’t handle that properly,’ won’t help. And it won’t make you do it right the next time,” he says.

Work with your school – The best action on bullying is, of course, preventing it. And the obvious first step is working with your school to raise awareness of anaphylaxis – including the risk of bullying. (See our newer article: “Allergy Bullying: How to Spot It and Actions to Take”.) Like Dorsey, many parents of children at risk of anaphylaxis volunteer regularly.

It’s also a good idea to get informed about anti-bullying programs and policies at your school and at the board or district level, as well as procedures for handling an incident. But say you’ve done all this, and still your child is victimized. If the teacher and principal are not already aware, you need to tell them. That goes for cyber-bullying too. The more specific you can be about what happened, the better.

With bullying high on the radar of most educators, you should expect the school to take it seriously and act with appropriate consequences. Coloroso says it’s wrong for anyone to try to minimize or explain away the behavior. Experts stress that ending bullying is an adult job because of the power imbalance. The child who is victimized can’t always extricate herself from the situation, and trying make the bullying stop without adult involvement may only make it worse.

While thankfully, uncommon, principals need to know when bullying crosses into criminal assault. For example, a teen in Wenatchee, Washington, was sentenced to four days in jail in 2008 for smearing peanut butter on the forehead of a fellow student who had an anaphylactic allergy. And the same year, police in Lexington, Kentucky, arrested a 13-year-old after she sprinkled peanut butter cookie crumbs in the lunchbox of a student with severe allergies.

Lisa Tichenor was pleased with the principal’s decisive action when her son was threatened. “(The perpetrators) were given such a talking to that they were really scared; they apologized and they never did it again. Nothing like that has ever happened again.”

Keep friends close – If there’s good news from parents whose anaphylactic kids have been bullied, it’s how their children’s friends and classmates rallied around. In many cases, another child tells the bully to back off or runs for the teacher. As one mother wrote on the Allergic Living Facebook page, “Teachers aren’t always there to witness something said or done, but there is always another kid there to speak up!”

Breen says watchful friends become even more important as allergic teens’ social lives evolve. “I’ve got some friends who get more anxious than I do about the whole peanut thing. Sometimes I have to tell them it’s fine, calm down. But it’s nice to know these people have your back.”

Teach caring – Overcoming the intolerance that leads to bullying is something every adult can work towards with the children around them. Coloroso sees it as adults’ duty to teach kids about respecting differences and embracing our common humanity, and about accepting one another. And acceptance is more than just tolerating somebody; the goal to her is “deep caring,” a drive to be kind, compassionate and loving.

“We have to model the behavior,” she says, “but we also have to talk about it. I might say to a child, ‘No, we’re not going to bring Mama’s favorite peanut butter dessert – because someone’s going to be there who can’t be around peanuts, because it makes them very, very ill.’”

Fortunately – and this is important, to keep bullying in perspective – many children embrace the caring that Coloroso talks about. Bullies are the exception, while compassionate, sensitive kids are far more numerous.

This article is from our archives; current resources are below.

Resources on Bullying

Study: Half of Parents Unaware as Food Allergy Kids Bullied