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Palm Harbor third-grader's parents in dispute with Pinellas schools over his food allergies

George Attia, 9, and his mother, Sahar Attia, chat. The Cypress Wood Elementary third-grader is allergic to peanuts, milk, soy, potatoes, sesame oil, coconut, shellfish, honey and wheat. His parents and the Pinellas Schools disagree over George’s personalized care at school.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

George Attia, 9, and his mother, Sahar Attia, chat. The Cypress Wood Elementary third-grader is allergic to peanuts, milk, soy, potatoes, sesame oil, coconut, shellfish, honey and wheat. His parents and the Pinellas Schools disagree over George’s personalized care at school.

PALM HARBOR — Sahar Attia fears someone at Cypress Woods Elementary School may kill her son.

The assailant might be a little girl with peanut butter smeared on her shirt. Or it might be a boy snacking on potato chips.

George Attia, 9, is allergic to just about everything — peanuts, milk, oats, wheat, eggs, potatoes, soy, maple syrup, honey, sesame seeds, barley, coconut, shellfish and tree nuts like almonds and cashews. And if a kid sits next to him with one of these foods?

"My face swells up and I get hives," the 9-year-old third-grader says. "It can be fatal."

Sahar Attia believes school officials aren't doing enough to protect him. "His life is at risk. Every second can affect his life."

• • •

The Attias want a one-on-one aide to monitor George throughout the school day. School officials say that's not realistic or necessary. They won't discuss George's case specifically, but they will say this:

Roughly a third of Pinellas public schools have a severely allergic student that they must make accommodations for, said Rita Becchetti, supervisor for school health services.

Although thousands of Pinellas students have ordinary allergies to things like pollen and ragweed and various foods, Becchetti estimates that 50 to 100 students have severe food allergies. None has been assigned a one-on-one school aide solely because of their allergies. "It's much safer to have everyone trained and not have one person responsible for watching that child," she said.

Neighboring school districts use the same strategy, she said. Typically, a nurse meets with the parents and school principal to craft a written plan for the child's safety. Here are some examples from the plan for George, provided by his parents:

• Teachers monitor snacks that come into the classroom.

• Classmates line up to wash their hands and swish out their mouths every morning and again after lunch.

• George always carries an EpiPen, a spring-loaded auto-injector of epinephrine to stop him from going into life-threatening anaphylactic shock if he's exposed to an allergen. George's teachers are trained to recognize the symptoms of an allergic reaction and how to use the EpiPen.

• George, whose diet consists of rice, corn, fish and meat, eats lunch with a teaching assistant. His table and chair are wiped down beforehand.

• When George goes to a class like art or P.E., his EpiPen is transferred from teacher to teacher.

"We look at each child on a case-by-case basis and put in place the things that we need to do," said Nancy Deane, a Pinellas school official who has met repeatedly with the Attias. Deane is responsible for making sure the district follows federal requirements for students with disabilities. "We have a set of guidelines for students with food allergies, and we've been very successful with that."

Around the country, schools are seeing more and more children with significant food allergies. No one knows why. (See accompanying box.)

• • •

Parents of children with severe food allergies sometimes home-school their kids. But that's not an option for the Attias, both of whom must work to support their family.

From kindergarten through second grade, George was in exceptional student education at Cypress Woods Elementary in Palm Harbor. He didn't have a personal aide, but there was an assistant in the ESE classroom whose first priority was George's safety, his mother says.

She said George was moved out of ESE this year because school officials said he no longer had a learning disability. The Attias have been trying to get him back into ESE ever since.

Sahar Attia has had numerous conferences with school administrators and has filed complaints with state and federal authorities. She has written to Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama.

She acknowledges that George has had no major allergic attacks this year. The last time anyone used an EpiPen on the boy when he was 4. But she argues that he's had too many close calls. A girl eating potato chips near George caused him to break out in hives.

Sahar Attia has heard school officials describe their strategies for keeping students like George safe, but she'll never agree that it's enough.

"It's not acceptable," she said. "Every single day, my son's life is at risk."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Food allergy facts

• The incidence of food allergies has doubled over the past decade.

• About 2.2 million American school-age children are affected.

• Peanuts and shellfish are most likely to trigger anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction involving rapid constriction of the airway.

• Food allergies cause an estimated 50,000 trips to the emergency room and 150 deaths a year.

Source: Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network

Palm Harbor third-grader's parents in dispute with Pinellas schools over his food allergies 05/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 4:23pm]

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