Parents, Administrators At Odds Over School Nut Ban
By: Alex Scofield
The signs adorning the front entrance of the Oak Ridge School sent a direct message on Wednesday afternoon, “Stop! No Nuts.”
The new nut-free policy, instituted as a response to a pair of serious allergic reactions suffered by Oak Ridge School students earlier in the month, has upset many parents, who feel it inconveniences the vast majority for the benefit of only a few.
The school’s administrators, though, said they were required by the Massachusetts Department of Education to enforce a stricter nut-free policy in order to fulfill their obligation of providing a safe learning environment for all their students.
Those who are allergic to peanuts can suffer reactions through a variety of ways, either by actually ingesting them or by simply being exposed to peanut dust or sometimes even peanut oil.
Superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson, who developed the policy along with Oak Ridge School Principal Thomas C. Daniels and school nurse Cheryle M. Varney, said she recognized the great inconvenience to parents the peanut ban caused.
“It is a challenge for parents of students who don’t have allergies,” she said.
However, she stressed that the challenges faced by students who have nut allergies are great, as well.
“These students are in a situation where they can have an allergic reaction that is life-threatening,” she said.
Some parents, though, like Christine D. Kuchar of Great Hill Road, said they were already aware of how serious peanut allergies can be, but they still think the administration could have come up with a more reasonable solution than completely banning nuts from the Oak Ridge School.
“I’m extremely frustrated,” Ms. Kuchar told the school committee during public forum on Wednesday evening. “This seems like a knee-jerk reaction to a small group of parents.” She also expressed her concerns that many students, including her own, recently had their peanut-packed lunches thrown away by school personnel and replaced with cheese sandwiches.
“That’s not what I would consider a healthy lunch option,” she said.
Ms. Kuchar’s comments were met with some applause from a group of parents who attended the meeting to speak out against the nut policy.
Mr. Daniels said he regretted that any lunches had been thrown away, and apologized for the swift manner in which the peanut ban was put in place.
He told the committee that the parents he has had time to discuss the issue with have come to at least recognize why the policy was put in place.
“People started out frustrated and angry and walked away, not necessarily agreeing, but at least understanding,” he said.
However, parents like Ms. Kuchar, and school committee member Andrea M. Killion still stood by their assertion that the policy was too extreme. Ms. Killion even told her fellow board members that if she had students in the Oak Ridge School, she would still pack peanut products in their lunch. “Even if this is what the law requires, it’s not a commonsense law,” she said. “We need to find a middle ground.”
She added that by completely banning nuts, the Oak Ridge School was creating a “false sense of security” among parents of students who have extreme nut allergies.
Products containing nuts will find their way into the schools, she said. In letter to the administration, parent Michelle C. Oriola of Nottingham Drive said the policy did a disservice to students with nut allergies, as they were not forced to learn to deal with their problem in a real world setting.
“As you all know, it’s a great big peanut-filled world out there. They will have high school, college, first apartments, travel to other countries and ballparks,” she wrote. “They need to learn how to use the skills necessary to save their own lives in real life places, and you are depriving them of this skill.”
Mr. Daniels said that he doubted any parent of a student with a nut allergy would ever believe that any place was truly nut free and said that the ban was really an escalation of previous, more moderate measures, like those at the Henry T. Wing and Forestdale schools, which had fallen short in his building due to the severity of the students’ allergies.
He said that the Oak Ridge School already had nut-free classrooms and a nut-free lunch table in the cafeteria, prior to the recent severe incidents School committee member Jessica A. Linehan said she was fully in favor of the peanut ban; she called it a matter of “life and death.”
“We have to think about the common good,” she said. “If a student has a severe allergic reaction to peanuts and dies, then that affects all of us, not just the parents of the students.”
School committee members Sharron L. Marshall and Shaun P. Cahill both told the administration that the biggest reason for the strong negative reaction was the lack of communication that preceded it.
“This wasn’t done in a way we usually like to do things,” Ms. Marshall said.
Ms. Kuchar emphasized the rapid development of the policy was indeed a major concern of hers.
“We went from receiving an automated call on a Thursday evening to having students’ lunches thrown away on a Monday,” she said.
Mr. Daniels said he was hoping to open up a dialogue with parents and even suggested the schools bring in a doctor to explain the severity of peanut allergies.
Richard W. Augustine of Manor Drive said the schools also needed to bring in somebody from the Department of Education to explain what their precise obligation was in dealing with the peanut policy, in order to guard themselves from potential litigation.
“This policy could be seen as arbitrary and capricious, and you could be personally liable,” he said.
School committee Chairman Robert F. Simmons Jr. agreed that the school committee did indeed need to determine what exactly they were required to do by the Department of Education.
“[Mr. Augustine] had a great suggestion. This was a short-term measure that the administration felt we needed to take,” she said. “Banning peanuts is not necessarily just a short-term solution, though. It’s the immediate solution at hand. I don’t know what the long-term solution is going to be.”
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