Editorial: Schools need comprehensive plans to react to food allergies - and families' help

An Arlington Heights school district, after much consideration, has decided not to put its students, teachers and parents through the rigors of an all-out peanut and tree nut ban, hoping it can keep its children safe through education.

Its key messages are useful in any school district: Think about what you are packing in those lunches. Train children to thoroughly wash their hands, especially after eating.

In Arlington Heights Elementary District 25, the question is not an academic one. A little girl nearly died last March after somehow coming in contact with peanut residue. She never touched a peanut and yet all of a sudden, her hands itched, her face and body swelled and her throat tightened, making it hard to breathe.

The third-grader stayed overnight in an emergency room, all because, maybe — as school officials and her parents can only speculate — she touched a doorknob that another child's hand unwittingly left peanut residue on.

The randomness, the sheer unpredictability of this, is terrifying.

What happened at Olive-Mary Stitt School on March 13 could have happened anywhere, and increasingly it probably will.

According to national health statistics, peanut and tree nut allergies in children have doubled in only five years. Roughly 150 people die every year from food anaphylaxis, 90 percent of them from peanut and nut allergies and usually not at home, but in schools and restaurants.

Given these statistics, every school needs to be prepared. District 25, where this drama played out, has approximately 200 children with medical plans on file to combat all kinds of emergency allergic reactions, plans that include EpiPens (epinephrine injectors).

Where will all this end? As the numbers increase, how can any large institution involving children hope to adapt effectively?

District 25 has made a good start, largely by suppressing panic. A committee of 35 parents, administrators, teachers and nurses met several times over the summer to discuss allergy issues students face and how to most safely and effectively address them.

It's a discussion other suburban schools would be well to emulate.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every district has to look at the threat from its own perspective and decide how drastic its solutions need to be.

How many students does it have? Can it deliver epinephrine at a moment's notice if it has to? Can it keep highly allergic children away from foods that are toxic to them?

As school districts like District 25 mull their options, the opening of school is a good time for parents, too, to think about their part in this. Find out if your child's class has an allergy-affected student, and ask, how can I help? Teach your children the seriousness of the situation without terrifying them and help them understand what their classmates may have to deal with.

Ultimately, we all have to protect ourselves and each other as best we can. It's everybody's responsibility.

The urge to protect victims of allergies

Education, not peanut ban, for Arlington Hts. schools

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