CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — A Chesterfield mom whose boys have severe food allergies says she worries about them every day at school.
She says the school system will not address her chief concern: food that is brought into the classroom even though their school-sanctioned safety plans, called a 504, forbid it.
I reached out multiple times to Chesterfield Schools with questions and a request to interview Superintendent Merv Daugherty. School spokesperson Shawn Smith never responded to my questions.
Still, that mom says she’s not giving up.
“My children are not safe in Chesterfield County Schools,” said that mother, who manages the daily lives of her three boys with food allergies.
She says she's beyond frustrated with her school system. “Our 504 plans are repeatedly violated in which they are breaking laws,” she said. “My children are covered under the ADA and they fail to comply and follow those rules. There are no clear food safety policies for children with disabilities.”
This mother, who does not want to be identified, provided CBS 6 detailed documentation of her case and says one egregious episode involved her 12-year old son and a classroom game last year that could have turned tragic.
“During a teacher-led assignment, they were instructed to throw food items in a game, a ‘Think Fast’ game, to talk about nutrition lessons, grains, vegetables, protein, in which containers of peanut butter were being tossed,” said the mom. “And unfortunately, one fell, because kids are throwing them, and it exploded.”
When her son suffered an anaphylactic reaction he was rushed to the nurse.
But his mother says he was not given the epinephrine shot the nurse had on hand, that she had just for him, for just such an emergency, which his specific health plan requires.
“They administered liquid medication called Zyrtec and did not administer an epinephrine pen,” she said. “I was called by phone and I arrived within minutes. Upon my arrival, his eyes were almost completely swollen shut. His face was flushed red. He was sneezing repeatedly and his eyes were watering. And he said that the roof of his mouth felt weird.”
The mother says when she demanded her son be given the injection the nurse finally complied.
She showed us how relatively easy it is to administer her son's device, called an Auvi-Q, which comes with recorded instructions: “If you are ready…2….1…training complete,” instructed the device once it was opened.
She then read from a stack of papers which she said was her correspondence with the Chesterfield County. “There is sufficient evidence that the student's 504 was violated,” she read.
She says she never learned why the nurse had refused to give her son the injection.
She showed us documents from Chesterfield's Chief Academic Officer Sharon Pope, in which Pope acknowledges the mistake and in which Pope said she and Supt. Merv Daugherty “express regret.”
But this mom says while the peanut butter incident may be the most frightening, it is just one of many alarming episodes. “So here's another one,” she said, pulling out another page. “’Sufficient evidence that student's 504 was not fully implemented on the date in question,'” she read.
She has reported at least two serious violations to Chesterfield's central office, three others to the school principal, with nearly a dozen other food incidents resolved individually with teachers.
“Why is this happening?” she asked. “And they're like, ‘I'm sorry, we'll make sure she never does that again,’ but I constantly have to babysit these people. And that should not be my job. All children should be safe. They deserve to be safe. They deserve to be included, and they simply are not. They're excluded.”
She has contacted numerous officials in Chesterfield County, including her school board member Kathryn Haines. She showed me an email thread many pages long, and going back more than a year, with Haines.
She informed Haines multiple times about her specific concerns.
I reached out to Haines to ask about the updated food safety guidelines that were offered to the board last fall by a School Health Advisory Board or SHAB.
As of this month, the board had not taken up the SHAB proposal. “[SHAB] sent recommendations in October, and there have been several board meetings since, but the board has chosen not to adopt or even vote or discuss any of these at any of the board meetings,” said the frustrated mother.
In her email correspondence with Haines, the mother discussed the SHAB proposal in detail.
Haines responded to my second email inquiry, saying: “Changing policy is never as straightforward a process as you might expect and there are usually multiple stakeholders whose concerns must be heard and addressed.
The bumpy process to update the CCPS Student Wellness policy has been frustrating to constituents.
The Student Wellness policy will come before the School Board at the April meeting for a first read and I would encourage you to follow that public process.”
But at that April meeting the Wellness Policy section on ‘Food in the Classroom’ that the SHAB proposal would have essentially prohibited, was not included among the other parts that were added to the board’s agenda, with Haines herself saying there was no need to change it.
“SHAB had a concern about students with allergies, and I just wanted to point out that we do have policy 4133 to protect kids with life-threatening allergies,” Haines told her fellow board members.
She had not shared that perspective with the mother in all their correspondence, nor had she in her brief email to me.
With that food policy unchanged, this mother says she takes some comfort in knowing that her sons’ friends are quite supportive. "Their peers and their classmates are amazing,” she said. “They're very, very caring children."
But she says she finds a terrible irony in how Chesterfield school leaders handles food outside the lunchroom.
In 2012, seven-year-old Amarria Johnson died after a classmate gave her a peanut on the Hopkins Elementary School playground.
That led to a new state law, requiring schools to keep epinephrine on hand.
In addition, Chesterfield Schools reportedly reached a six-figure settlement with Amarria’s family.
But according to this mom, more changes are needed.
“What goes through your mind when you think of where we are now, 10, 11 years later?” I asked her.
“It's terrifying as a parent with a child with food allergies,” she replied. “I would have expected more by now. They did require them to stock epinephrine, and it's also my understanding there's no peanut served in the school lunch, which is great. Those are really great steps, but we need to keep it out of extra curricular activities. It should not be on lesson plans. Students do not need to throw jars of peanut butter.”
Again, I reached out multiple times to Chesterfield County Schools Spokesperson Shawn Smith with questions about food policy and a request to interview Supt. Daugherty.
He has not responded to my questions.
An expert on 504 protocols says parents like this mom can reach out to the US Department of Labor’s Civil Rights division to file a complaint and they can also file suit in federal court seeking damages.
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