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Lakeridge moms, new legislation draw attention to food allergies in kids

This no-nuts classroom is one of several at Island Park Elementary. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
This no-nuts classroom is one of several at Island Park Elementary.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

MISD allergy precautions

currently in place:

- Student medications (EpiPens/Benadryl) sent on field trips.

- Staff and teachers trained on food allergies, symptoms and how to administer the EpiPen.

- Photos of students with food allergies made available to teachers/staff.

- Children with allergies should be chaperoned when sent to the nurse’s office.

- Substitutes must be notified of students with food allergies and medications.

- Medicines must be easily accessible.

- Signs are placed on classrooms with students who have food allergies.

- A nut-free lunch table and menu for those who want it.

- A note is sent to parents letting them know of a child who has allergies in the classroom.

Nearly 200 students in the Mercer Island School District have severe allergies to certain foods. A number of these conditions are so serious that the merest taste of a nut, shellfish or dairy product could lead to anaphylactic shock and potentially death.

Food allergy awareness is an issue of concern for every school district. But for Island parents Dawn Jorgenson and Margie Willett, it is so much more. It’s a part of their every day. It’s ensuring their children’s lives.

Both Jorgenson and Willett have elementary students with severe food allergies, and both are members of the Mercer Island Food Allergy Group. This week, as part of a statewide food allergy awareness initiative, the mothers are bringing their cause to Lakeridge Elementary.

The duo has organized a number of activities for Food Allergy Awareness Week, May 11-17, and is starting early. On May 4, they will hold a “play date” for children with food allergies and their parents to meet and socialize on the Lakeridge playground.

“It’s basically a time for the kids to meet other children with allergies so they know that [they’re] not the only ones who can’t have certain birthday cakes,” said Willett, adding that this was the first time the group has organized such an event.

Willett and Jorgenson have also arranged for an informational flyer on food allergies, which includes ways the school community can help prevent a life-threatening situation, to be sent home with each student at Lakeridge on May 11.

Inside the classroom, Lakeridge librarians will read and discuss books about food allergies with the students. Although their efforts are limited to Lakeridge, the mothers encourage all Island schools to participate in the initiative.

In tandem with Food Allergy Awareness Week is new legislation requiring that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) develop anaphylactic policy guidelines for schools to follow in the case of an emergency. The law, Senate Bill 6556, was signed on March 11, and gives the OSPI until March 31, 2009 to report new guidelines to school districts and the legislature. Schools are expected to adhere to the new policy as of September 2009.

Even the Mercer Island School District, which already has anaphylactic guidelines in place, will benefit from the legislation, Willett said.

“The guidelines will provide a better format to help ensure that [the district’s current action plan] will always happen. It provides more of a checklist and mandate,” she said, adding that although they try, staff do not always follow every guideline.

The issue of food allergies is an especially sensitive one for the Mercer Island School District. Nearly 10 years ago, Islander Middle School student Kristine Kastner died tragically at a friend’s house after eating a chocolate-chip cookie with traces of peanuts in it.

Although the 12-year-old’s mother arrived with an EpiPen, the device malfunctioned when she tried to inject the epinephrine, forcing her to dial 911. At the time, Emergency Medical Technicians were not required to carry EpiPens. Two teams of EMTs were called to the scene. Both arrived without epinephrine. By the time paramedics showed up with the medicine — 45 minutes later — Kastner was already dead.

The incident spurred Washington legislators to sign the Kristine Kastner Act on Jan. 1, 2000, allowing all EMTs to carry EpiPens, which they must be trained on administering.

Today, parents are legally required to notify schools of their children’s allergies, help staff prepare a treatment plan for students, and provide a doctor’s authorization for medication. This information must be updated each year.

According to Diane Hampson, a health room parapro at West Mercer Elementary, every teacher with a student requiring an EpiPen must have the device readily available and be trained to administer it.

“We have EpiPens for every child identified as having a potentially serious anaphylactic risk — bee stings or food allergies,” Hampson said. “Every teacher who has a kid with an EpiPen is trained at the beginning of the year. Health staff and office staff are also trained.”

With special “nut-free” classrooms and cafeteria tables, photos of each child with an allergy on file and alternative lunches for students with allergies, the school district is addressing the problem with vigilance. Yet it is not school staff that Willett and Jorgenson worry about so much as parents who pack a sack lunch that, safe as it is with their own child, could be life-threatening if shared with a classmate.

“The schools have all the measures in place, but you have to tell the parents too. They bring in cupcakes for their kid’s birthday and, maybe, they give them to your kid who can’t have them,” Jorgenson said. “They don’t think about it — and why should they? It’s a hard thing to ask of someone. So we’re constantly bringing these things up.”

Indeed, when it comes to the safety of your own child, precaution has no limit. All it takes is the slightest case of cross-contamination — a peanut butter sandwich packed next to an apple — to set off an anaphylactic reaction. And careful as children living with the allergy may be, they are not always able to discern the safe food from the toxic.

“Things come up like marzipan — well, how is my [kindergartner] supposed to know there’s nuts in that?” said Jorgenson. “It’s just nice when we can have people looking out for our children, especially when the kids are too young to look out for themselves.”

Willett and Jorgenson know they cannot raise their children in a world free of allergens. But what they can do, at least, is spread awareness.

“The fact is, at some point my son is going to have a reaction. It’s unavoidable,” Willett said. “I just need to know that the medicine is there, that the problem is recognized and that somebody reacts quickly.”

For more information on Food Allergy Awareness Week, visit www.foodallergyinitiative.org.

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