Kyla Williamson froze in terror shortly after sitting down to lunch at Benchley-Weinberger Elementary School in Del Cerro. Another child, armed with a celery stalk stuffed with peanut butter came up behind the 8-year old and, according to Kyla’s mother, began heckling her with the chant: “Peanut butter! Peanut butter!”
For most, it may sound like harmless jeering. For Kyla, the event could have quickly escalated into a life-threatening situation.
“She could very well have died,” said her mother, Jenn Williamson. “He had celery with peanut butter and was holding it and putting it near her face, near her back. He didn’t actually get it on her, but it was as close as he could get without touching her.”
Like many kids who are taunted at school, Kyla didn’t share the event with her mother. Neither did the school. Williamson first learned about it from another parent who was the volunteer lunch monitor that day in April. Eventually, the school meted out a punishment for the celery-wielding child, which included an apology letter that said, “I’m sorry” and “I don’t want you to die,” but the event is just one example in what experts say is a growing trend across the nation.
As I wrote on this issue for Take Part:
As isolated incidents of bullying, these acts may simply seem rude and obnoxious, but for the 5.9 million U.S. kids living with a life-threatening food allergy, such stories—where food is akin to a deadly weapon—are downright chilling.
“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,” writes Catherine Saint Louis in The New York Times. “Surprisingly, classmates may prey on this vulnerability, plotting to switch a child’s lunch to see if she gets sick, for example, or spitting milk at a child’s face and causing a swift anaphylactic reaction.” …
In January, Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published results of a survey that showed being bullied was common for kids with food allergies, and that nearly half the time, parents had no knowledge that it was occurring.
“Which equates to one in 13, or roughly two in every classroom,” said John Lehr, CEO of Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) in an email.
And because bullying of kids with food allergies can be turn serious in an instant, FARE decided to launch its own public service announcement in an effort to educate parents, teachers and kids on just how devastating the experience can be.
While the San Diego Unified School District has a comprehensive bullying policy in place, it doesn’t specifically address bullying with food.
“Bullying is bullying and we’d recognize it under our existing bullying policy,” said Linda Zintz, a spokesperson for the school district. And Zintz reminds that bullying by its very definition must be something that is ongoing.
“Certainly we have children say something inappropriate once, but that doesn’t make it bullying. If they’re disciplined and continue to do it, then that’s considered bullying. It needs to be repeated and pervasive,” she said.
For Williamson, the topic of targeting children with food allergies is one she hopes will get more visibility.
“A lot of people don’t talk about it. They don’t educate the kids on why understanding the seriousness of food allergies is critical. They don’t truly understand what it can do, and that kids can’t help being allergic,” said Williamson.