February 2018

By Roni Caryn Rabin, The New York Times – 2/15/2018

Bridget Starbuck says everyone in the small town of Stockton, Kan., where she lives knows her boys have severe food allergies. So there was no benign explanation for what happened at a high-school basketball game a few weeks ago, when an older child walked up to her 12-year-old — who is allergic to dairy products — and smeared nacho cheese dip on his face.

“My son washed it off and didn’t have a reaction, thank goodness, but it scared him,” Ms. Starbuck said.

Veronica Simanowski, of Reno, Nev., said her kindergartner had a similar experience earlier this month when two boys sat down at the lunch table designated for children with allergies and started waving animal crackers in his face. “My son said he was worried he’d have to use his EpiPen,” Ms. Simanowski said, referring to the device used to give a shot of epinephrine to halt a severe allergic reaction.

And a father took to Twitter to recount how his son, who has a severe peanut allergy, was once “taunted by ‘friends’ with a PB & J sandwich,” who said, “‘let’s see if he dies.’”

Many parents of children with food allergies have been disturbed by a scene in the new Peter Rabbit film, in which rabbits hurl a blackberry at a human character with severe food allergies, causing him to go into anaphylactic shock.

Sony Pictures has issued an apology, but parents say the movie illustrates one of the persistent preventable threats to their children’s health: bullies who pick on children because of their food allergies, going beyond verbal taunting to attack them with allergens.

Children with food allergies have had milk poured over them, peanuts waved in their faces, cake thrown at them, and peanut butter smeared on them.

The most dangerous incidents occur when bullies surreptitiously contaminate the child’s own food with a food allergen, triggering a life-threatening reaction that cannot always be resolved by the use of an EpiPen, advocates say.

“Kids may think something like that is funny, but when a child has an allergy, this is like an assault with a deadly weapon,” said Ms. Starbuck, the mother from Kansas.

Even when children aren’t physically harmed, the incidents can take a psychological toll, causing distress and anxiety and affecting their quality of life. Children may refuse to go to school, or become socially isolated, depressed or even suicidal, experts say.

The bullying problem is widespread. Some 5.9 million children in the United States, or about one in 13, suffer from food allergies, and studies have found that close to one in three children with food allergies have been bullied specifically because of their allergy.

Most of the bullying is done by other children who are peers or classmates, but adults may also make insensitive remarks. All too often, children make the mistake of not telling their parents they are being bullied, even though studies have found that adult involvement is effective and can usually put a stop to the behavior. As children get older, however, they are more reluctant to have their parents get involved.

Among children who were bullied, one study found, more than half said they had been touched by an allergen, had an allergen thrown or waved at them or had their food intentionally contaminated with an allergen.

“Most of the bullying was verbal, as in ‘Ha ha, you can’t eat this,’ but occasionally they would wave the food at the person and threaten them with it, and if they dropped the allergen into the child’s own food, that could cause a serious reaction,” said the author of that study, Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute and chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Last fall, the company Kaléo Pharma and several advocacy organizations — including the Allergy & Asthma Network, Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team, Food Allergy Research & Education and Kids with Food Allergies — started a campaign against bullying in an effort to stamp it out.

The campaign’s goal is to convey to would-be bullies that attacking someone with allergens is not merely cruel; it could be deadly.

Attacks may also carry legal repercussions for the assailants. A growing number of victims are alerting law enforcement officials and pressing charges.

Just last month, a 14-year-old girl from Butler, Pa., was charged with felony aggravated assault after an incident in December in which she rubbed pineapple on her hand and then high-fived a girl known to have a severe pineapple allergy. Two other teenagers were charged with criminal conspiracy.

In August, a Central Michigan University student pleaded guilty to assault and battery after being charged with hazing for smearing peanut butter on the face of an unconscious student with a severe peanut allergy. The victim was treated at a campus clinic and recovered, but his parents said he could have died if the peanut butter had gotten inside his mouth.

Civil lawsuits have been filed against restaurants accused of deliberately inserting allergens into food ordered by customers who made their allergies known when they placed their orders.

In one such case, a Natick, Mass., man has filed suit against Panera LLC and its franchisee organizations on behalf of his daughter, who experienced an allergic reaction after eating a grilled cheese the family had ordered from a local restaurant.

The family had specifically noted in its online order that the customer was allergic to peanuts, but the grilled cheese came with peanut butter hidden inside.

“These kinds of incidents have long-term impacts on kids,” said Mary Vargas, one of the lawyers representing the family. “This little girl thought she was going to die.”