“I’m having a bad day, can I come home?” That is the text Eric and Jessica Staponkus received after their son said he was bullied with a life-threatening allergen during lunch last week.
Alex, 14, told his mom that he was just trying to eat his lunch in the cafeteria when two kids began waving a peanut butter cup in his face. He said the boys stayed in his face, taunting him and laughing. Anger was building inside the teen from Cary, North Carolina, who is allergic to peanuts and has asthma.
After repeatedly asking them to stop with no result, he flicked a piece of his sandwich at them. Alex says the boys then began smearing the peanut butter cup all over his lunch sack.
The eighth-grader told his mom that he resisted his desire to defend himself with his martial arts skills. Instead he went to get wipes so that he could clean off his lunch sack. The school administrator who gave him the wipes prompted him to reveal what had happened. When his mom arrived, the two of them met with an assistant principal at Cary’s Mills Park Middle School.
“Once in the car of the parking lot, he was shaking and crying out of anger, humiliation and fear,” says Jessica. Her son was especially angry because one of the students, whom Alex has known since third grade, is aware of his allergy and its severity.
“This is not ignorance,” his mom says. Alex revealed that this was not the first time he had been taunted with his allergen at school. Not wanting to be a snitch, he hadn’t told anyone before.
“I wish that we could teach these kids to be kind to each other,” she says.
Peanut-Smearing: Targeted and Dangerous
Alex’s mom appreciates the empathy the assistant principal showed her son following the incident. Jessica, who has worked in the school district for the past four years, also was thankful that other teachers reached out to make sure Alex was OK.
But she would like to ensure that the peanut-smearing incident is taken seriously, and that bullying is clearly not welcome at the school.
In an email to school administrators, Jessica wrote: “These two boys targeted Alex for his food allergy. They bullied him. They assaulted him with a weapon that could kill him.”
Thankfully, Alex did not have a reaction requiring him to use the epinephrine auto-injectors that he carries. But his exposure to peanut butter could easily have been worse, and resulted in a serious reaction and a trip to the emergency room.
In the past, Alex’s face and hands would swell just from touching peanut protein on a door knob at school; he grew up highly allergic. But Jessica believes that Alex’s successful participation in peanut oral immunotherapy (OIT) helped protect him on this day.
Alex participated for 2 1/2 years in a clinical trial through the University of North Carolina’s Food Allergy Initiative that assessed the use of the biologic drug dupilumab alongside OIT to improve desensitization. Alex is now on a nightly dose of one Reese’s Pieces with a Zyrtec to maintain his level of desensitization.
She believes that without OIT, this could have been “a vastly different situation.”
Allergy Bullying Too Common
Alex was uncomfortable upon seeing the two students at school the next day. The family’s understanding is that the students’ parents were called, and the two boys received lunch detention as punishment, Jessica says. The school declined to comment on the peanut-smearing situation.
“It is an expectation that these two students receive the same consequences for their actions as any other student who would get into a fight, threaten, bully,” Alex’s mom wrote in her email to the school administrators.
While the Wake County Public School System includes a bullying prevention section, and school board policy prohibits bullying, specific disciplinary action is not outlined.
The Staponkuses have decided not to pursue legal action. They met this week with school administrators and the nurse to talk about the incident. They believe that the school and the district are making positive efforts engaging in conversations and re-evaluating processes regarding food allergies, Jessica says.
“We believe that awareness has been raised and education has taken place,” she says.
Alex is not alone. Researchers at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., found that 1 in 3 kids say they have been bullied because of food allergies. The study, reported in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology in 2021, asked 9 to 15-year-olds various questions about allergy-related bullying.
Fifty-one percent of participants reported physical acts, such as an allergen being waved in their face, food being thrown at them or an allergen put in their food.
“This is happening over and over and it needs to be addressed,” Jessica says. The study highlights the need for more awareness and education.
Fostering Awareness, Empathy
Jessica is hopeful that conversations following Alex’s experience can help raise awareness about food allergies. For example, administrators in Alex’s school were receptive to learning more about Food Allergy Awareness Week (FAAW), and incorporating it into the school’s activities.
Jessica also proposed changes to the health curriculum that would include information about food allergies, and training for middle school students on epinephrine auto-injectors.
She would also like her family’s experience to remind others that they don’t always know everyone’s full story. On the outside people might see Alex as a cool, funny, confident kid, but he’s also a teen living with food allergies and asthma.
“I want the teachers, the administrators, other parents to stop and listen to other people’s stories and to be respectful.” Perhaps that can foster needed empathy and compassion, she says.
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