As you know it’s back to school month here at My Plant-Based Family! We are celebrating all month, well I’m celebrating and trying to make your back to school transition a little smoother.
Today I want to address all of those families that have kids with food allergies but please stick around even if your family isn’t touched by food allergies.
If you are new to the Food Allergy scene I’m sure you are a nervous wreck about sending your kid to school. Rightly so. It can be very scary. I’m in a number of food allergy support groups online and the stories I hear are heart breaking. The purpose of today’s post is to equip and hopefully encourage you as you send your kids with food allergies back to school.
What is a 504 Plan?
Did you know that severe, life threatening food allergies are considered a “hidden disability” by the U.S. Department of Education? Section 504 of Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (and American with Disabilities Act amendments) prohibits discrimination against children with disabilities at schools that receive federal funding. Essentially it assures that students with disabilities receive the same education in the least restrictive way.
A 504 Plan is a cooperative plan put in place at your child’s school designed to keep them safe from food allergies. A student with severe peanut allergies may have a 504 Plan that prohibits peanuts being brought into the classroom. They typically address any area of the school where the student has access.
How to get a 504 Plan
If your child needs a 504 Plan you should contact your child’s school. I recommend you write an email so you have a paper trail. You will need proper documentation from your child’s doctor. Your job will be to prove that your child is eligible for the plan. I’ll include more resources at the end of the post to help you.
If your child is eligible a 504 Plan there will be meetings where you and various people at the school typically administrators, teachers, cafeteria managers, school nurse, etc. will attend.
We do not have a 504 Plan and I’ve never had to go through the 504 Plan process. I’ve asked other food allergy moms about their experiences though.
What really happens
I asked a couple of food allergy moms to share their experiences with me. Meet Jeannette and Rachel!
Do you feel like a 504 Plan keeps your child safe?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. I had a talk with our allergists who has never been a big advocate of 504’s about this. He told us “A school will either do what is right for your child or they won’t. A 504 won’t change that”. After having talked with several special education professionals, I got the same answer. If we look at human behavior, we see that simply having something on paper does not determine behavior (if that were the case, no one would ever drive over the speed limit). A 504 can provide understanding and clarification, but it will not keep your child safe. The only thing that keeps your child safe is educators committed to the inclusion and safety of all students.
I think Molly’s 504 keeps her safe when it is followed. I have had two different experiences at two different schools. The biggest issue for us was not safety but exclusion. As Molly has gotten older being excluded or different has been hard for her to deal with, at times it’s heartbreaking. Bullying was an issue at one school but not the other. That is something that I will always be sure to address, how will you handle bullying?
Do you have advice for families considering a 504 Plan? As parents what issues should we address?
The best strategy to ensuring safety of food allergic students is to ensure that school staff understand the concepts of community, inclusion, and safety of all students and have the ability to engage in collaborative conversations about how we balance conflicting needs and interests. As parents of food allergic students, we clearly have a lot of “skin in the game”, that being said, success and safety for food allergic student’s requires all members of the team (principal, nurse, teacher, education assistant, etc.) all see that they also have a vested interest.
Don’t let small things slide. If they aren’t following the plan on ANYTHING let them know, nicely. Little things not being followed turn into big things. I always address inclusion: classroom, field trips, extracurricular activities, bullying, parties and programs, absences, self carried emergency medication, Epi action plan, cleaning in the cafeteria, school bus safety, recess and PE. I make sure that I can take her on all field trips because we once had an asthma attack on a field trip severe enough to go to the ER. I also request permission to be at every classroom party.
Another thing to mention is substitute teachers/staff. The one time Molly had to have Epi at school was when they had a substitute. To me it is a HUGE safety issue. I also had a substitute tell her once she could not take her Epi bag with her. She has self carried since she was four, so she stood her ground.
I firmly believe that every student with a life threatening food allergy should have a 504 Plan. It provides a set of guidelines that everyone needs to follow. Never the less, students and parents must remain vigilant to keep food allergic children safe.
Visit FARE for more info about 504 and Written Management Plans along with lots of other helpful information.
Special Thanks to Jeanette Baxter and Rachel Reed!Jeanette is a passionate advocate for the Allergy, Anaphylaxis, and Asthma community, mother of four, one of which is a brave little girl with peanut allergies, asthma, and Mast Cell Activation Disease. Follow her work in Oregon to help those living with Allergies, Anaphylaxis, and Asthma at http://oregonaaaalliance.
Do you have experience with 504 Plans or kids with food allergies going to school. Please share!