CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- For most kids, getting wiped with peanut butter would only be embarrassing, but for a growing number of kids, it could be deadly. Nearly 6 million children suffer from severe food allergies in the United States, according to the group Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Nearly one-in-three children has been, or will be, a victim of food allergy bullying.
Julie Hunt, of Chesterfield, said it was difficult for some parents and children to understand just how dangerous a simple peanut butter sandwich could be for her 11-year old son Liam.
"It’s like a loaded gun to my child," Hunt said. "If he gets a remnant on his hand and it goes in his mouth or in his eye, it is without a doubt a trip to the emergency room."
Liam has not been bullied at school because of his food allergy, but Julie Burman’s son has. Three years ago, a little girl in his class put a peanut butter cookie in his desk.
"She didn’t like him," Burman said. "It’s very scary. You have to put a lot of trust in the school."
As a preschool teacher at Ironbridge Community Christian School in Chester, Burman can make sure kids with food allergies are protected. When she sends her son off to public school, she has to trust his teachers will protect him as well. Luckily, her son found the cookie before he touched it. In this case the little girl was expelled from school.
"This incident that happened with him, I don't think it was the teacher’s fault. I don't blame them. The little person took matters into their own hands," she said.
Dr. Ananth Thyagarajan, with Allergy Partners of Richmond, said he and other doctors cannot explain the rise in the number of children with food allergies, but he can tell you a result of them.
“In the past three or four years, there have been at least two studies that have shown a significant amount of bullying, food allergy specific, in our schools”, Dr. Thyagarajan said. While most schools in the area have specific codes of conduct with detailed consequences for students caught bullying, there is very little that deals specifically with "food allergy bullying." Dr. Thyagarajan said he believed education, not policy, was the answer.
"With food allergy bullying, it's to a different level. Because there's such an acute danger which can be potentially life threatening," he said.
Julie Hunt said she knew she could not always be there to protect Liam, but she talked with him about the dangers all the time. She said she hoped that if Liam was ever confronted by a bully, he would know what to do.
"You have to talk about it," Hunt said. "They have to understand what they have to do to help keep them safe."
"I would tell them that's not nice," Liam added. "It’s nothing to joke about. People can die of that (food allergy bullying)."
Groups on the front line said the best thing parents can do is teach their children how harmful food allergy bullying can be and tell them to always report bullying to an adult. Many children are reluctant to talk about being bullied, so it was up to parents to look for warning signs. They should also be on the lookout for any changes in a child's eating habits, especially if they seem to be eating less.