An Action Plan for Food Allergy Bullying
This is the one guide we hope you never have to use, but if your food allergic child is bullied, here is everything you’ll need. If your child is one of the nearly 25% of children bullied, a rate that rises to 50% starting in sixth grade, emotions will inevitably kick into high gear. Clear thinking and knowing your rights is how to prevail. Mary Vargas, a disability rights attorney and allergy mom, tells us exactly how to respond in the event your child is bullied.
Bullying 101 with Mary Vargas
1. How do I know if my child is being bullied?
Bullying is a know-it-when-you-see-it situation. If an action causes hurt or humiliation, it’s bullying. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the school becomes responsible for a bully’s actions if the bullying is severe, pervasive, and/or persistent and interferes with your child’s ability to equally access their education.
2. Has your child experienced food allergy bullying?
Yes. I saw food allergy bullying happen right in front of me in my son Perry’s classroom. I also experienced discrimination when my son’s summer camp refused to administer epinephrine for my son’s peanut, tree nut, and shellfish allergies. It was this weird moment where my personal and professional worlds collided, and I realized that everything I was doing at work for people with disabilities now applied to my son. That’s why I started doing this kind of work.
3. Are schools responsible for the bully’s actions?
If your child’s school knows or should have known about bullying that is interfering with your child’s federally protected rights, it must take effective and immediate action.
4. Are schools only responsible if the bullying happens at school?
The protection required of the school extends to after school activities and the online activity of its students outside of school (e.g. cyber bullying). The standard is: if the school knows or should have known about the bullying, then they must take effective and immediate action.
5. Are schools only responsible for their students?
No. The school’s responsibility extends to anyone who interacts with your child on school property or at a school-sponsored event, including teachers and other student’s parents.
6. Are schools required to have a bullying policy?
Schools should have policies in place to prevent bullying and may need to revisit those policies as part of an effective and appropriate response to bullying of a student with a disability. At that point, you may suggest they create a policy that includes food allergy bullying specifically.
7. Where should parents focus their energy to best help their child?
Emotions run high when your child is bullied. While it is a natural reaction to focus on the bully’s punishment, your primary goals should be to ensure the bullying stops and to secure remedies for any harm the bullying caused. For example, if the bullying impacted your child’s test performance, an opportunity to retake the test should be provided. The school will need to tell you the steps they are taking to address the issue without violating the other child’s privacy rights. They should explain what remedies they will make to help your child, but may not disclose their planned discipline or punishments. For practical purposes, you want to remain as calm as possible so the school focuses on your requests and not your behavior.
8. What are my child’s federally protected rights?
Your child has a right not to be subject to discrimination, including retaliation on the basis of disability. These protections differ depending on whether or not your school is public or private. Public schools must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504. Private schools may also have to comply with Section 504 if they receive federal funding. Federal funding means they receive funds or subsidies. Even if a private school does not receive federal funding, it may still need to comply with the part of the Americans with Disabilities Act that applies to private businesses. To see if your school is federally funded, go to www.usaspending.gov and search “Recipient Profiles.”
9. Is bullying different when food allergies are involved?
Food allergies are generally considered a disability.* If you have a disability, any bullying that impedes access to education places an obligation on the school. Some schools treat harassment aimed at a disability as discriminatory harassment, which may be considered an additional offense. However, some use the terms bullying and discriminatory harassment interchangeably.
*While the Americans with Disabilities, the ADA, does not define which conditions are categorized as disabilities because they assess disability on an individual basis, it states that a person is entitled to protection if they have substantial impairment to a major life activity or bodily function. Because exposure to their allergen can trigger these substantial impairments, a food allergy can qualify as a disability triggering protection under federal law.
10. How do my child’s protections differ if they attend an independent school?
Students who attend schools that don’t receive federal funding may have protections under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act or state law. Independent schools commonly have a code of conduct that each student is required to sign, which can also strengthen your case.
Learn your state protections: https://www.stopbullying.gov/laws/index.html
11. Are there situations when I should consider getting law enforcement involved?
Food allergy bullying could cross the line into criminal conduct if there is intent to harm. You can consider going to the local police if your child was exposed to their allergen with the intent of harming them. Even if you do go to the police, your school is still responsible for responding effectively and immediately.
12. Are there situations when I should consider legal action against my school?
If you think that the school did not respond in an immediate and effective manner, you can consider legal action against it. If your school is federally funded, you can ask for a due process hearing (a hearing with the school before an administrative law judge) or file a complaint with either the U.S. Department of Education or in court. If your school is not federally funded, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice Disability Rights Section or file a complaint in court.
14. Do the same rules apply to celiac disease?
The celiac community and the food allergy community face many similar challenges. Just as food allergy can be a disability, so too can Celiac Diseases and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, triggering protections against discrimination and bullying.
6 Steps if Your Child is Bullied
Few things can feel more emotional than when your child is bullied, but rational, clear thinking is required. These 6 steps provide a process to move forward and ensure your child’s safety.
1. Get Your Child’s Account of What Happened
Talk to your child and determine:
Who the bully or bullies were
What the bully’s actions were
When the bullying occurred and how often
If there were any witnesses (e.g. teachers, aides, other students, parent volunteers) who also observed the behavior
2. Reach Out to Witnesses
If you have a personal relationship with any of the witnesses (another child’s parent), reach out and document their account of what happened.
3. Check If Your Child’s School Has a Policy
Every school should have a bullying policy on file. It’s valuable to know what their policies and processes are when reporting the bullying to the school.
4. Notify the School
This is a critical step because once you let your child’s school know about the bullying, you should expect the school to take effective and immediate action. NOTE: The school does not have to confirm they received your email to be held responsible for taking action.
Who to Send the Email to:
Send an email to the school’s Principal, Dean of Students, Head of Diversity, Guidance Counselor, and teachers. CC the District Administrators and 504 Coordinator if applicable.
What to Include:
Provide key information such as who the bully was, what they did and how often they did it. Keep detail at a high level, and offer to provide more information at an in-person meeting.
Explain how the bullying has negatively impacted your child’s access to their education. (For example: your child doesn’t want to raise their hand, go to after-school activities, eat their lunch at school.)
Reference your school’s bullying policy and why you believe the bully violated it.
Share that a food allergy is considered a federally protected disability, so the bully’s actions are also viewed as discriminatory harassment.
Attach the 2014 “Dear Colleague” Letter from the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights that explains federal protections for disabled students.
Ask for a meeting the following day.
What Not to Include
Overly emotional rhetoric may detract from your case. Stick to the facts.
Don’t focus on the potential punishment.
5. Schedule the Meeting
Get a meeting scheduled immediately. The next day is reasonable.
Establish which members of the faculty will be there and whether or not your child will attend.
6. Know Your Goals
Understand the process. Have the school explain the overall process once they are aware of the incident as well as what happens in the interim.
Establish what happens in the interim. While the process is ongoing, determine what actions the school will take to protect your child in scenarios where your child may encounter the bully and continue to monitor the situation. Figure out the steps your school plans to take to stop the conduct.
Ask for remedies if warranted. For example, if your child took an exam under stress from the incident, you can ask to have the test retaken.
Assign a trusted school representative. This should be someone that your child can go to if further incidents occur while at school.
Educate. Use this situation as an opportunity to request that food-allergy bullying become part of the school’s anti-bullying programming.
Identify the next steps. Ask the school to clearly communicate to you when you will hear from them next and what to expect, such as an update on the process.
How To Notify Your School When Your Child Is Bullied
When you learn that your child has been bullied, you will want to notify the school as soon as possible. Sending an email puts the school in the know, a key factor that requires them to respond effectively and immediately. During this emotional time, writing a productive email can be challenging, but it’s critical to ensure the best outcome. Here are the essential letter components, each with a goal and sample text.
1. Include everyone necessary in the thread
Goal: Contact every individual who has a responsibility for your child.
Include: The Principal, Dean of Students, Head of Diversity, Guidance Counselor, teachers, 504 Coordinator (if applicable), you can also consider including District Administrators.
2. Write a thoughtful subject line
Goal: Get the school’s attention with the subject line of your email.
Sample Text: Urgent - Reporting Bullying at [Name of School]
3. Offer key information
Goal: Clearly identify your child, their grade, and that they believed they were bullied because of their food allergies.
Sample Text: We are saddened to report that [child’s name and grade] has been bullied [repeatedly if applies] by another student regarding [his/her] life-threatening food allergies.
4. Provide high-level detail
Goal: List key information such as who the bully was and what, where, and how often the bullying occurred. Keep detail at a high level, and offer to provide more information at an in-person meeting.
Sample Text: We were made aware that recently, [other student’s name(s)], has [explain bullying incident in detail, including dates and locations]. We can provide more detail on what occurred when we meet in person.
5. Include witness statements
Goal: Provide the accounts of witnesses if there were any.
Sample Text: The parent of one of our child’s friends, [witness name], told us that they observed [include witness observations].
6. Provide detail on the impact
Goal: Explain how the bullying has negatively impacted your child’s access to their education. For example, the bullying occurred right before an exam was given and it impaired your child’s ability to focus on the test.
Sample Text: We believe that [actions of the bully] made it difficult for our child to [example: focus on their exam], which prevented them from performing their best on the test and did not provide equal access to their education.
7. Source the school policy or code of ethics
Goal: Reference your school’s bullying policy and why you believe the bully violated it.
Sample Text: The bullying and inappropriate actions of [bully’s name] clearly violates [cite school bullying policy here if applicable]. Pursuant to school policy, we would expect you to take immediate action to stop these policy violations.
8. Include that food allergies are considered a disability
Goal: Provide incremental information to support your case or point out that potentially another violation has also occurred i.e. discriminatory harassment.
Sample Text: Food allergies are considered a disability by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504. To discriminate against someone for a disability surely violates school policy.
9. State your goals
Goal: Get the school to take immediate and effective action to stop the bullying activity and provide remedy if needed (i.e. a test retake if the initial test was taken under stress from bullying).
Sample Text: This is not an environment in which our child feels safe or can thrive and it certainly has caused [for example: severe mental anguish to (child’s name)]. This needs to be dealt with immediately. Our goal is to prevent this activity from happening in the future, and we would expect our child to be given an opportunity to [include remedies i.e. to retake any quizzes or tests they took under the stress of these incidents].
10. Establish the bully had knowledge of the severity of your child’s allergy (if this applies)
Goal: State that the bully knew your child had a food allergy, the seriousness of it, and used that information in their bullying.
Sample Text: Our child had explained to her fellow students that her food allergies are severe and life-threatening. [Bully’s name] had this knowledge and used that in threatening [child’s name]. It is clear that their intent was to harm our child.
11. Ask for meeting
Goal: Set up a meeting as soon as possible i.e the next school day.
Sample Text: I’m sure we all agree that bullying cannot be tolerated and this issue needs to be dealt with immediately. We request a meeting with the school tomorrow, [date].
12. List desired attendees
Goal: Ensure all required school representatives will be present. If the school has a 504 plan or IEP, make sure the 504 or IEP team attend.
Sample Text: We would like [applicable school representatives] to be present.
13. Request for interim measures
Goal: Make sure your child is safe at school during the period before your meeting with the school.
Sample Text: Please note that [child’s name] has class at [time period] and we do not want [bully’s name] to speak to or interact with [child’s name].
Goal: Thank them for their attention and re-emphasize the expectation that this will be handled immediately.
Sample Text: Thank you for your immediate attention to this matter. We look forward to hearing back from you regarding the meeting tomorrow.
15. Attach dear colleague letter (optional)
Goal: Provide legal documentation which explains federal protections for disabled students if you feel it will strengthen your case.
Sample Text: We have attached the 2014 “Dear Colleague” Letter from the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights that provides examples of disability protections extending to students with life-threatening food allergies.
16. What Not to Include
Overly emotional rhetoric may detract from your goal. Stick to the facts.
Don’t focus on the potential punishment.