Controversy erupted recently when a local family asked the Science Hill High School Band Boosters to stop selling shelled peanuts at football games. Peanut shells litter the stands on Friday nights and the family’s toddler is severely allergic. The Johnson City School Board formed a committee tasked with determining the best course of action.
Peanut allergies are a serious, frightening problem for many families. Around 3 percent of American children have peanut allergies; about 2 percent of that group would have a life-threatening reaction to peanuts. Parents of kids with severe allergies are in a difficult position — every day, every place, every situation can pose a threat to their child’s health or life. Peanut products can lurk anywhere.
In some schools and day cares, employees aren’t allowed to consume peanut products before or during the workday because residue could linger on their hands or face and come in contact with an allergic child.
Many schools have policies such as designating one “nut-free” table in the cafeteria — any child who does not have nut products in his lunch may sit there, including kids with allergies. Thus, an allergic child is not isolated or ostracized, other children may eat their preferred foods and the table itself is safe from any peanut residue. It’s a perfect solution to keep allergic kids safe without compromising the rights and needs of other children.
Research clearly shows that an anaphylactic reaction from airborne particles is extraordinarily unlikely. That is, if a child across the room is eating a peanut butter sandwich, she poses no threat to the allergic child — direct contact is the only means of contamination.
It’s a tough situation for teachers and administrators — they want to keep all kids safe and don’t want to face lawsuits should something go wrong, but they must consider the precedent being set. Once we ban things to accommodate one person, where do we stop? Do we stop serving milk in school lunches because one child is severely allergic to milk? Do we eliminate sporting events on natural grass because one child is severely allergic to grass? It’s a slippery slope.
Experts believe bans are not effective and instead offer a false sense of security. There will always be people who ignore or disregard the rules — we can’t guarantee 100 percent compliance. Education and preparedness are far more successful than bans.
While it does “take a village,” it is ultimately a parent’s job to keep her child safe. I don’t ask my neighbors to come over and buckle my child into her car seat; I don’t send her to the pool alone and expect everyone else to keep her from drowning. I don’t try to stop cars from driving on my street — I keep my child out of the street. I am responsible and accountable for my child’s safety and for teaching her how to stay safe in various situations.
As for the Hilltoppers’ peanut controversy, the child involved is only 18 months old and should thus be in his parents’ care during games. The family has been offered seats in the band’s section at the game, where no food is allowed — a fair and reasonable solution.
I am very fortunate that none of my children have food allergies, so I haven’t experienced firsthand the constant worry it entails. But I have raised three children through the young toddler phase, and while allergies didn’t require vigilance about any specific items, I never let them wander around public places, picking up random objects off the ground.
The sale of peanuts is a fundraiser for the Band Boosters — it’s a big source of revenue for the band’s many needs not covered by our tax dollars. Money should never trump safety, but we’re talking about one small child attending a game with his parents; this is not an issue of general public safety. To believe rules should be changed for one individual smacks of self-importance and entitlement, even if it comes from a place of real, understandable fear.
We cannot expect the world to change to accommodate our every need — kids, with allergies or not, have to learn that the world does not revolve around them. They must learn to function within normal parameters, not inside a bubble. The world can be a dangerous place for any of us, but with reasonable caution and common sense, we can stay safe. I trust the School Board’s committee will make the right decision — one that will assist families with special needs but will not bow to the unreasonable demands of one parent.
Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist.