A hurt and frustrated southern California mom has launched a lawsuit after her son was twice refused admission to preschool programs because of his severe allergies to dairy and eggs.
In a lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court, Rebecca Magdaleno is suing both the organization that runs the preschool programs and its surrounding school district. She alleges that Options for Learning and the Rowland Unified School District, located in Los Angeles County, abrogated the rights of her son Sebastian Rodriguez. Her suit says this is contrary to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the state’s own Unruh Civil Rights Act.
In an interview with Allergic Living, Magdeleno said her attempts to enroll Sebastian, who’s now 4, were nothing but a crash course in discrimination. The mother of two is represented by Maryland rights attorney Mary Vargas and advocates from California’s Disability Rights Legal Center.
Magdaleno says she was open about the severity of her son’s allergies – consuming dairy products, for example, has caused him to have anaphylactic reactions. However, she’d never before thought his allergies would be a barrier to him living a normal life.
“Just because a child may have a disability, to be made to feel that they are any different, or that you need to be pushier, it’s not right,” she said. “I want people to know it shouldn’t be like that. Because when it is, it’s horrible.”
Open About the Allergies
The saga began in the summer of 2019, when Magdaleno attempted to enrol Sebastian in Options’ state preschool program at Villacorta Elementary School, near the family’s home. As with other little kids, it was supposed to be a rite of passage for her son, at the time an energetic 3-year-old with a love of Hot Wheels and everything Pokémon.
According to the lawsuit, Magdaleno filled out the paperwork and dutifully informed the Options representative of her son’s allergies. Asked what that meant, she explained that the allergies were serious enough that the preschool would have to keep an epinephrine auto-injector available.
The representative told Magdaleno she would consult her supervisor and that there would be a “504 meeting”. It was the first time the young mom had heard the term. Children with disabilities often qualify for a 504 Plan to ensure equal access to education in federally funded schools and preschools.
But Magdaleno says it was also the last time she heard ‘504’ mentioned by anyone at Options. Instead, she was asked if Sebastian’s allergies simply meant that he shouldn’t be given milk – and if he did have an allergic reaction, if an inhaler would suffice. Her answer was an emphatic ‘no,’ it wasn’t. She stressed again that an epinephrine auto-injector was the only safe treatment for anaphylaxis.
2 Preschools Turn Boy Away
At the end of July 2019, the Options supervisor called to say that the state preschool could not admit Sebastian. The suit says Magdeleno asked repeatedly for a letter that explained the reasons for the denial, but one was never provided.
The next day, Magdaleno says she got another call, this time with the news that the preschool might be able to accommodate Sebastian, but they needed more information, which was provided. At one point, the mom says she even offered to provide the school with safe snacks for her son and cleaning wipes to sanitize surfaces. But it was to no avail. On August 13, the day before the preschool fall term was to start, she got a final call to inform her that Sebastian could not be admitted.
Undeterred, Magdaleno then attempted to get Sebastian admitted into a separate Head Start preschool program at Villacorta, which is also run by Options. That was also unsuccessful.
Finally, the family moved to a town about an hour away, where Sebastian started preschool this February, only to have the Covid-19 pandemic send him home a month later.
Vargas, who has been involved in several such cases, notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a list of commonsensical voluntary guidelines to help manage allergies in schools and early care programs. Measures include having all children wash their hands before and after eating, and training staff in the use of epinephrine auto-injectors. She is baffled that such accommodations remain an issue.
“With some entities, I can understand. But preschools? This has been going on for decades, and authorities should be accustomed to and accommodating kids with food allergies,” she says.
Thomas Silvera is the founder of the Elijah-Alavi Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preschool food allergy safety and education. After his younger son died of anaphylaxis from a cheese sandwich he was served at daycare, Silvera and his family successfully lobbied for New York State’s Elijah’s Law, which extends K-12 allergy accommodations to preschools. Told of Magdaleno’s preschool struggles, Silvera was succinct.
“No parent should be put in that position – and no child either,” he said.
As for Magdaleno, she is determined to do everything she in her power to prevent anyone else from having a similar experience. “To hear Sebastian cry, ‘Mommy, why can’t I go to school?’ It is something I’ll never forget.”