Ann Arbor (Mich.) News
February 7, 2006


Wendy Gregory has reason to be apprehensive when her daughter, Ashley,
starts kindergarten in the fall. Ashley has a severe allergy to
peanuts and could have a life-threatening reaction if she comes in
contact with them.

But thanks to an Ann Arbor schools initiative, Gregory is feeling less
anxious than she might otherwise.

The district has put together a new information kit for elementary
schools that includes a handbook with a series of checklists for
school personnel, a video on food allergies, books for children about
food allergies and other information. The kits are being sent to the
elementary schools this month as schools begin heading into
kindergarten enrollment season.

The goal of the new packet, the result of work for the last several
months by a district task force of local medical experts and school
staff, is to help the district have a uniform set of policies for
working with students who have food allergies.

Gregory thinks the handbook is a good idea.

"I'm glad it's all spelled out for us to go over just how the schools
are going to work with her," Gregory said. "If there is a written
list we can all go down, it's less likely we'll miss something. We
just want our daughter to be safe."

Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, the district's administrator for elementary
education, said the packets should be reassuring to parents.

"It can be scary for parents, especially those who are putting their
child into our schools for the first time," she said. "They're
trusting the lives of their children to people they might not have had
that long-term of a relationship with. This is about partnerships. The
kids have responsibilities, the parents have responsibilities and the
district has responsibilities."

Regan Dahle knows about that anxiety. She has a daughter with peanut
and tree nut allergies in the Ann Arbor district.

"It's a very scary concept of handing them (the kids) to people who
are relative strangers," Dahle said. "If at the first meeting with
the principal or the school nurse, (the staff) can say they are very
familiar with students with food allergies and be able to say, 'Here's
the policy of how we work with them," that's very reassuring. I think
it will help parents' anxiety."

Dealing with students with severe food allergies is a growing
challenge for schools. One in 25 American children has some sort of
food allergy. In most cases that means peanuts, but it can also mean
other nuts, eggs, milk, soy or wheat gluten.

Some area districts, including Dexter Community Schools and Whitmore
Lake Public Schools, have policies in place to deal with the issue.
Other districts, including Lincoln Consolidated Schools and Milan Area
Schools, work to treat each student on a case-by-case basis.

The Ann Arbor district wanted to have some uniformity in how it dealt
with its students. Until now, the approach varied by school.

"One of the purposes was to make the policies consistent across the
district," Dickinson-Kelley said. "We still have the capacity to
reflect the uniqueness of each student's situation in the individual
action plans."

Now, even the signs that announce whether whole schools, classrooms or
other rooms are off-limits to various types of foods will be the same
in every building.

The handbook includes checklists of questions that school nurses will
use in interviewing parents about students' health needs.

It also has checklists for teachers and building administrators.

The book also contains sample letters that teachers and principals can
send home with students explaining any restrictions in a certain

"It's helped us all be much more aware of what we need to be
monitoring and thinking about," Dickinson-Kelley said. "We had to
think about the entire inclusive life of a student in our elementary

That means checklists for bus drivers and lunchroom workers too.

Dahle, who reviewed a draft of the policy for the district, liked the
completeness of the new handbook.

"I was very impressed with how thorough they were," she said. "They
took a lot of time to cover all the areas in a school where a kid with
food allergies may go."

Medical experts aren't exactly sure why the number of children
diagnosed with food allergies has grown so rapidly in the last several
years. Some of it could be the result of better diagnoses, Dr. Harvey
Leo, a local pediatric allergist, has said.

Although researchers are trying to develop treatments, the best plan
remains prevention and avoidance, he said.

A challenge for schools is to keep students with allergies safe,
without putting too many restrictions on what students can bring to
school. Some schools have banned all peanut products from the
building, while others have settled on policies such as providing
peanut-free tables in the lunchroom and peanut-free computers in

"We've been working to find out where is the middle line between being
too restrictive and protecting these students," said Dickinson-
Kelley. "I think we can do this without being too restrictive."

David Jesse can be reached at or at (734)

Copyright 2006 Ann Arbor News