Does Teacher’s ‘Right to Eat’ Trump Allergy Safety?

in Food Allergy
Published: October 9, 2014

A Long Island mother felt “shell-shocked” after being told at a school meeting that music and art rooms would not be made nut-free as an accommodation for her daughter’s life-threatening allergy.

Allison Villafane-Kaplan had spent months going back and forth with her 5-year-old daughter Virginia’s new school over the creation of an acceptable 504 plan to protect Virginia, who has severe food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, soy, egg, shrimp and sesame. A 504 plan is a document used to solidify school accommodations for any disability, including a life-threatening food allergy.

Villafane-Kaplan says the school had pushed back on several points of the plan – from instituting a hand washing policy, to hiring and training an aide to shadow Virginia with an epinephrine auto-injector, to keeping all of her allergens out of her classroom.

She managed to get these accommodations added, but when she asked for a requirement that teachers not eat nuts in the music and art rooms, which are shared between different classes, she was told teachers could only be ‘asked’ to do so, not required. (Students aren’t allowed to have any food in these rooms, so staff was the only issue).

Exhausted from months of negotiations, Villafane-Kaplan was ready to concede the point and trusted that the teachers would do the right thing anyway. However, when at a meeting to discuss signage the day before school started, she noticed a new face at the table: a union representative.

“The union rep pipes up that teachers have a right to eat nuts in their classrooms, that they’re educated adults and that after they eat peanut butter they know to clean their hands,” says the mother. “I was shocked. The union rep made a bold proclamation to me saying the teacher’s ‘right to have nuts’ is more important than my daughter’s safe learning environment.”

The case raises an interesting issue – can a teacher’s perceived ‘right to eat’, or their contract, trump a 504 plan? “I certainly have never seen this issue before,” attorney and disability expert Tess O’Brien Heinzen told Allergic Living. “I would argue that teacher contracts are not a defense to discrimination.”

Some typos in the 504 document meant it was re-sent to Villafane-Kaplan for review, which gave her a chance to re-state her objections. The result was a new 504 meeting that took place at the end of September, but all members of the 504 team again voted (except Virginia’s teacher, who abstained ) to keep it as a “request”, rather than a “requirement” for teachers to not eat nuts in these rooms. As of press time, Villafane-Kaplan is still trying to come to an agreement with the school to get this accommodation in place.