Parents, Schools Step Up Efforts To Combat Food-Allergy Bullying

Making food allergy awareness part of the curriculum may help prevent bullies from using these foods as a threat.
Making food allergy awareness part of the curriculum may help prevent bullies from using these foods as a threat.
/Janice Chang for NPR

Bullying takes many forms, but when it involves a food that triggers severe allergies, it could be potentially deadly.

Once, when Brandon Williams, a 16-year-old from Kentucky, was on a trip with his bowling team, his teammate decided to eat some food from McDonald's on Williams' bed. One item had so much mayonnaise that it dripped onto Williams' bed and jacket. But for Williams, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening egg allergy when he was one, it was a potentially dangerous situation. "I told the person not to eat on my bed," Williams recalls. His teammate just smiled at him, then he shoved the mayonnaise-laden sandwich in Williams' face.

It's always the same. People wave food near Williams that they know he can't eat. They see him and yell, "Hey let's feed this guy egg." It's not original, all the jokes are the same kind of thing, Williams says, yet the bullying carries an undercurrent of risk. "It wouldn't be funny to break someone's arm to send them to the hospital," Williams says. "Why would it be funny to send someone to the hospital for an allergy?"

One 2014 study found that as many as 32 percent of children with food allergies have been bullied at least once. Roughly a third of bullied children were bullied more than twice a month, according to the study in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

"Food allergy bullying was something we were hearing more about," says Rachel Annunziato, associate professor of psychology at Fordham and one of the study's authors. They did the study to find out if it was a real phenomenon and discovered that far more children experienced it than they expected. It didn't matter how serious the allergy was or whether the kids were allergic to peanuts or wheat or shellfish. As Brandon's mother Kandice Williams put it, "The nature of humanity is, I guess, to find cracks and attack there."

While it's hard to know for certain, it's unlikely that food allergy bullying is a new phenomenon. But the number of children diagnosed with food allergies is growing, which means it could harm more people. From 1997 to 2007, the number of children with food allergies increased by 18 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations associated with these allergies also continue to grow.

Raising awareness about the issue is important, says Sanaz Eftekhari, director of corporate affairs at Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. "If a child doesn't understand the consequences or life-threatening nature of an allergy and thinks bullying someone is the same as calling someone a name, that's when it becomes really dangerous," she says. "Food allergy awareness has increased in the last decade or so but I think food allergy bullying is a new aspect," Eftekhari says.

Parents and schools can make a big difference in how kids with food allergies are treated. Many students with serious food allergies — which qualify as a disability under the law — set up a 504 plan, a written blueprint for how schools will accommodate that student's needs. This has led to things like Nut-Free Zones in the classroom or lunchroom which makes it less likely that there will be accidental ingestion of an allergen, but does little to discourage would-be bullies from putting someone with an allergy in harm's way.

You can't stop bullying by focusing on the victim alone. Annunziato found that when schools have zero-tolerance for bullying and teach bystanders to step in, "it decreases the trajectory of being a bully."

Today there are schools that go above and beyond nut-free zones. Williams and his mother both say that his school is generally really good about responding to food allergy bullying as long as he reports it. But, especially as a child gets older, they prefer to handle many of these situations themselves rather than running to a teacher or principal. That's why it can be important to address allergies in the curriculum as well as increasing general awareness.

Washington Yu Ying is a public charter school in D.C. that has woven food allergy awareness into the curriculum since it opened a decade ago. "We wanted to be as inclusive as possible of anything and everything," says co-founder and principal Amy Quinn.

Though they only have a small percentage of kids with allergies in each grade, Quinn says, they've added books that deal with food allergies. There are a number of them: The Princess and the Peanut Allergy, Can I Have Some Cake Too? and What Treat Can Rubin Eat? barely scratch the surface of these titles. Every year students wind up doing projects on food allergies at Yu Ying's STEM fair. "We ask those kids to present to their class about their experiment and that's been successful too," Quinn says.

Despite that, even Yu Ying has had run-ins with food allergy bullying — generally from first and second graders. Quinn says that those are the years when kids start to hone in on differences between them and their classmates "but are not so mature that they're thinking through decisions," she explains. "We're not sure that they're doing it repeatedly but they're doing it with the knowledge that it's not the nicest thing to do." Then it's back to the classroom to make sure the bully and other students all know that bullying someone with food allergies is more than just teasing, more than just a prank.

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