In a recent survey of 251 sets of parents and children with food allergies, published in Pediatrics in January, roughly a third of the children reported being bullied for their allergies. And parents knew about the threatening behavior only half the time.
Writing for the New York Times, Catherine Saint Louis comments that it takes only one lunch or cupcake birthday party for other children to know which classmates cannot eat nuts, eggs, milk or even a trace of wheat.
“It can take longer for them to grasp how frightening it is to live with a life-threatening allergy. Surprisingly, classmates may prey on this vulnerability, plotting to switch a child’s lunch to see if she gets sick…or spitting milk at a child’s face and causing a swift anaphylactic reaction.”
A nonprofit group in Virginia recently released a public service announcement highlighting the issue that featured a pupil who viewed the cafeteria as a “scary place.” It has more than 17,000 views on YouTube, has been shown on the CW network, and inspired dozens of parents to share unsettling anecdotes on the group’s Facebook page.
“Bullying should never be regarded as a rite of passage,” said John Lehr, the chief executive of the group. “It’s never a joke, but food allergy bullying is really not a joke because someone can be taken to the emergency room.”
Dr. Hemant P. Sharma, the director of a food allergy program claims every few months a child recounts being force-fed an allergen. “Even if it’s just a child who feels singled out because of their food allergy, it compounds the emotional burden.”
And in some cases, victims of bullying are reluctant to tell their parents. Eight-year-old Miles Monroe, who is allergic to milk, eggs and wheat, told his parents he didn’t feel comfortable in the lunchroom after a classmate held a Kit Kat candy wrapper near his face and kept chanting, “You can’t eat this!”
Elisabeth Stieb, a nurse at the Food Allergy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, points out that “Food allergy-related bullying does not always stem from peers, but from adults, such as teachers.”
Meghan Maloney, who now lives in Virginia, remembers being bullied in the mid-1990s when she was “the new kid” in 7th grade at a small school near Cleveland, Ohio.
Maloney told NPR’s Barbara J. King:
“I believe I was the only student in the whole school with a food allergy. Everyone was informed about my allergy, so all my classmates knew I had a milk allergy, but I don’t know if they understood its severity. Being the new kid, I really didn’t fit in anyway. One day at lunch, I got up to use the restroom, leaving my lunch on the table. When I returned, several people were snickering and watching me. I reached for my open can of soda to take a drink and at the last second someone said ‘stop.’ Several classmates had put a piece of cheese pizza in my soda. And they were very disappointed that I didn’t drink from the can.”
Had Maloney sipped her soda, the cheese would almost certainly have caused serious illness.
“At least 15 states have guidelines for management of food allergies in schools, and many tackle bullying specifically. Texas guidelines urge zero tolerance for bullying related to food allergy.
“Arizona’s guidelines suggest cafeteria monitors be trained to intervene quickly to help prevent trading of food or bullying activities.”