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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is This A Human Rights Violation? - Part 2

Yesterday I blogged about the human rights action that has been taken on behalf of six children at St. Stephen School in Ontario. Today I interviewed the key spokespeople on both sides of the issue. Maurice Brenner is the human rights expert who is supporting the children and Chris Cable is the Communications Manager for the York District Catholic School Board. (I want to first acknowledge my appreciation for their time today.)

Student safety is the priority
Both sides agree that the ultimate goal is to provide children who have anaphylaxis with a safe environment at school. Mr. Brenner noted that there is a "need to minimize risk with a safeguard" though he did acknowledge that "no safeguard will be 100% effective and since accidents will happen an emergency plan must also be in place".

Ms. Cable concurs and noted that "human rights call for accommodations for disability and though anaphylaxis is not actually listed as a disability, the onus is on schools to minimize risk" for those students with food allergy and anaphylaxis.

So why have things escalated to the human rights tribunal you ask? Good question.

Brenner's goal: Reinstate the prior process of parents checking ingredients
Mr. Brenner noted that the sole objective of the human rights action is to reinstate the prior two- step process where parents noted that lunches were safe and teachers confirmed that each lunch had a parent's note attached.

Brenner said that the former process involved "a simple note, not a detailed ingredients listing. It was just a simple note that said the lunch was checked and it was allergy free." He continued to say, "teachers are fine with the existing practice and are just following the direction of the school board. The (ingredients list) practice had been in place for five years without incident and the recent change in administration resulted in a change in attitude."

Why was the ingredient list process canceled?
According to Cable, the school board canceled the ingredients list process for two reasons. The first is to mitigate risk and the second is that she questions whether the process adds value from a safety standpoint. "(School) staff is not qualified to determine if a lunch is allergen free and neither are parents," said Cable. "You would have to be a dietitian to do this and parents would have to send in packaging so (staff) could read the ingredient list. (The process) gives a false sense security".

Where do we go from here?
Both sides are determined to see this through to the human rights tribunal. While Brenner noted that he is open to mediation, it was clear from speaking with Ms. Cable that the school board is going to stand firm in its position to go without the ingredients list process. This does appear to be headed for a formal tribunal hearing and you can bet that every school board across Canada will be paying attention.

Ms. Cable is fine with whatever ruling the tribunal makes and feels that "if York is a test case for the betterment of all schools (the school board) is okay with that. If there are specific things that the tribunal wants they should be put in place and resources will be required. This is a bigger issue than York. It impacts school boards across Ontario and beyond."

Shrove Tuesday 2007
I was struck by the Brenner's comment that the change in administration resulted in a change in attitude. This perceived change appears to be one of the biggest reasons that there is a human rights action today.

The turning point in school board / parent relations just might have been the cancellation of a 'Shrove Tuesday' celebration earlier this year. Brenner noted that in preparing for the celebration the school departed from prior practice, where a community allergy committee was consulted, and instead went ahead and ordered a new pancake batter that contained an allergen. Cable countered that the school purchased the same batter it always purchased, and a parent raised a concern that the batter "might have been made in a facility that might also have made products containing nuts".

Not only do the two sides have their own version of what exactly happened, they also differ on what transpired thereafter. Brenner noted that the school board sent a letter to parents noting that the celebration was canceled and "made it sound like the allergic kids had it canceled". Cable does not agree that the letter blamed the children with allergies.

Though it is not surprising that the two sides have different versions of events, it does appear that the biggest issue with Shrove Tuesday might have been miscommunication.

NoPeanuts' take ...
I have to admit that I am surprised at the extent to which the children, and more importantly their parents, have held steadfast on this issue. Though Mr. Brenner noted that the prior practice was easy to implement and consistent with recommended guidelines for special events, I tend to agree with Ms. Cable's contention that the process provides limited additional security for allergic children while possibly exposing the school board to significant risk.

Think about it. How diligent do you think most parents would be when they are making lunches at 10:30pm? They would do a quick surface check for peanut butter or eggs, but do you really expect them to know that hydrolyzed vegetable protein might contain peanut or that
casein might trigger an allergic response in those who have anaphylaxis to dairy?

School staff would face similar challenges when doing a quick surface check of lunches. As I noted yesterday, it is not likely that a teacher would would catch the sandwich that accidentally contained egg mayo instead of the eggless variety.

It does not make sense to have added risk without a reasonable expectation of an incremental 'reward'. While Brenner noted an increase in the number of serious allergic incidents at St. Stephen since the ingredients list process was canceled, Cable is only able to recall a single incident requiring Benadryl but not an epinephrine auto injector.

I concur with Ms. Cable's contention that the ingredients list process might actually create a "false sense of security" for parents. As I noted yesterday, I would certainly not rely on it to keep my daughter safe. I would instead take comfort from St. Stephen's comprehensive allergy policy which extends beyond the requirements of Sabrina's Law. It seems to me that the allergic children at St. Stephen are indeed being afforded accommodation for their disability.

While I fully appreciate the right of the children to refer this matter to the human rights tribunal, my original conclusion remains intact. The specific issue to be decided is whether the ingredients list process is an accommodation covered by human rights for the disability of anaphylaxis.

As this process seems to provide limited additional benefit beyond the extensive policies and safeguards already in place, I would be surprised if their action was successful.


Mom said...

Are you seriously advising your readers that anaphylactic children should not be allotted the protections of the Human Rights Code? These children were give accommodations wherein teachers would monitor snacks/lunches (simply by walking around) and parents could either provide packaged snacks with ingredient listings or a note confirming safety...BOTH accommodations were removed which is a clear VIOLATION of the Code. Being a parent at this school, I can tell you that Ms. Cable has feed you quite a few whoppers and rather than investigating you have decided to strip these children of their Rights as Canadians. Let me ask you this question, a question you should have asked..Ms. Cable refers in media reports that St. Stephen was the cutting edge of Allergy Provention..if it was why take away the accommodations away? Were these questioned accommodations what made the school cutting edge? Why would you want to "bring the school in line with others, if by your own admission, it was the cutting edge? What has happened to these children can happen to any child with a disability. Your article/blog is an example of why we need the Ontario Human Rights that the needs of children such as these are not subjected to opinion or political agendas. You have done a REAL disservice to these children and to your readers. You should be thankful that your child does not attend this school for if he/she did, you'd be singing a completely different tune.

Anonymous said...

Putting a simple note on a lunch bag
verifying that this lunch has been checked and that it does not contain nuts or eggs takes 2 minutes and more importantly, CAN SAVE A LIFE.

The cost to performing a good faith check is free. The life of any child is priceless.

NoPeanuts said...

I am advising my readers of no such thing.

If you read my posts you will notice that I am indeed in support of accommodations as a human right for those with food allergy and anaphylaxis. 100%.

I also support the right of the children to push for their rights and bring the action.

I simply stated that I would be surprised if the action was successful.

I have read the school's anaphylaxis policy, thereby going a level deeper than Cable's comments. In speaking with both Cable and Brenner, it is clear to me that the ingredients list policy is not something that can be relied upon. The parents and teachers are not qualified to ‘verify’ that a lunch is allergy free so the accommodation is of limited incremental utility given that the school already has comprehensive anaphylaxis policy and makes many accomodations beyond Sabrina's Law.

If it is not possible to guarantee allergy free lunches but this process adds risk for the school board, I am not sure how that is an accommodation that should garner specific protection under human rights.

chriskauf said...

I only wish that our public school board 30 minutes away offered as much consideration as York Catholic District School Board does ,there anaphylaxis policy is 7 pages. is where you can find their policy outline, they don't know how good they have got it to have such a detailed board policy.
to have every parent comply with listing all ingredients, we should all be happy if parents are helping us out my not sending allergens to school , there is no law to dictate that parents must comply with these suggestions pleas or guidelines.
Mom of penaut/nut allergic child.

chriskauf said...

To have the validation of parents that do not fully understand severe food allergies is purely risky , I would not trust the opinion of my family to know how to ensure foods safe of allergens never mind my child peers parents.

chriskauf said...

Sorry one more , thing because I feel strongly , we can not remove allergens from the allergics life or all environments, we should expect however, awareness, and preparation should something go wrong, for our schools to as well as some accomodation , my school was buying cookies for sale with possible trace amounts of tree nuts, we worked on the issure together , I have now offered to make peanut and nut free alternatives for the children that need it , and I am one of 6 families in the school with an anaphylactic child and not one other family showed concern or even asked if there would be a problem. Sometimes we need to help out for our children and not everything can be allergy free.

Anonymous said...

I think that the checks take little time or effort on the part of the school and could easily continue. However, I think that they should be done with the intention of lessening the amount of peanut and egg at the school, not totally eliminating it (because there will be mistakes no matter what) and therefore *good handwashing*, good table washing, etc should be happening. I didn't see mention of these things in the article on this topic and hope good handwashing and table cleaning is happening at this school. Additionally, I hope there is a method of checking if allergens are in any food products that are used in classrooms or better yet, that *no* food is being used in classrooms.

I live in the USA and we don't have the type of policy of checking lunches this way or any bans of food in the school as a whole but I would appreciate a policy like that. We do have policies in place to keep my son safe--handwashing, separate allergy-free table (for which other students' lunches *are* checked in order to get to sit with my son, no food allergens allowed in his classroom, handwashing upon entry to the classroom, other students' lunches stored outside his class, teachers trained in the signs of anaphylaxis and how to use the epi pen, etc. There is a lot more to it, actually.

I can see that a policy like the checking of lunches and notes from other parents *could* create a false sense of security. However, if people truly understand food allergies it will not because there *absolutely* will be mistakes by other parents and by those checking. What the policy *will* do is reduce the amount of allergens in the school and I can't see that as a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let your readers know that it would appear that the OHRC has sided with the six children at St. Stephen as EVERY ACCOMODATION WAS RESTORED. It is ashame that your readers (especially those parents of anaphylactic children) failed to realize that their children have the right to a safe learning environment and that the checking of snacks does fall under a teachers "duty of care". Yes there is no guarantee of an absolute safe environment but that doesn't mean a school doesn't not have the responsibility to do everything it can to reduce the risk. Those accomodations were in place for a reason and to remove them was in contrary to the Code of Human Rights. These children should have been supported and honoured for their bravery, not judged and ridiculed. Regardless, through thier bravery, and despite the ridicule, they have changed the future for all children suffering with anaphylaxis and I commend them for it! Perhaps now a show of support or at least a congrats would be in order.

NoPeanuts said...

Congratulations! That is good news. I am happy that you were able to work this out to your satisfaction. Please email me the full details of what has been agreed.