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Fox Chapel sued over food allergy treatment

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 10:48 a.m.

Though a growing number of children are diagnosed with food-related allergies, school districts generally are ill-equipped to deal with kids who need accommodations, experts say.

“We know these students need accommodations. They can have a life-threatening reaction that can go full-blown within minutes. Is it rare? Yes. But does it happen? Yes,” said Gina Clowes of Cranberry, founder of AllergyMoms.com, an online resource for parents whose children have food allergies. “Schools don't really understand.”

The parents of a former Fairview Elementary student claim in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on Sunday that Fox Chapel Area School District officials discriminated against their son, who has a severe tree nut allergy, by refusing to develop an adequate plan to protect him from exposure.

They say the district not only failed to provide their son with sufficient accommodations, but isolated him at a separate desk in the cafeteria to eat his lunch and did not to step in when classmates teased him. The parents are challenging a state hearing officer's Aug. 14 ruling that rejected their discrimination claims.

The lawsuit identifies the student only as “T.F.” Attorney Jeffrey Ruder, a lawyer who filed the lawsuit on the parents' behalf, did not return calls Monday. Nor did Fox Chapel Superintendent Anne E. Stephens, the district's solicitor Martin Sheerer, or several school board members.

District spokeswoman Bonnie Berzonski said in a statement that the district “has and will continue to make appropriate accommodations for students with allergies.”

“A hearing officer in this case, which was heard this past summer, found in favor of the Fox Chapel Area School District on this issue and we are confident that the Federal Court will agree with that decision,” she said.

Pennsylvania has no state law governing food issues for students, and its schools follow federal laws, which require schools take steps to incorporate students with the fewest restrictions, officials say.

Yet it's important that districts provide training to teachers and staff, said Elizabeth Goldenberg, an attorney and founder of Ontario-based Onespot Allergy.

“Anaphylaxis is a unique situation. It's the only first-aid situation where you have to do something before you call 911. In the 10 to 15 minutes while you're waiting for an ambulance, the student could be dead, so it's similar to finding someone lying on the bottom of your swimming pool. You wouldn't just call 911 and stand on the side waiting for them. You would jump in, pull them out of the water and then call 911,” Goldenberg said.

The number of children under age 18 with food allergies increased nearly 20 percent from 1997 to 2007, according to an October 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2007, the CDC found that four of every 100 children had food allergies.

The lawsuit against Fox Chapel schools says T.F. had a history of anaphylaxis. His parents enrolled him in the district in 2010 because they were told the school had a “nut-free table” in the cafeteria, although they later learned such a table did not exist.

When T.F.'s mother complained, the district proposed a plan that said T.F. would not get food while in the district's care unless his parents provided it. The district would provide an emergency care plan to school employees, and a nurse or other supervisor would accompany T.F. on field trips.

T.F.'s mother was not confident the plan was sufficient because it did not include training staffers about how to avoid allergen exposure or to identify symptoms, and it did not designate people who could treat the boy.

His mother proposed a plan that district officials said was too long and did not incorporate the recommendations, the lawsuit states.

T.F.'s mother withdrew him from school on Nov. 12, 2010, after the boy visited the school nurse three times for allergy-related illnesses.

Two weeks later, his mother enrolled him in Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, the lawsuit says. The district filed a citation for truancy on Nov. 18, which it withdrew six months later.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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