Viola School Board lets nut ban opponents speak

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Viola School Superintendent John May has outlined a process to deal with complaints over an elementary school ban on foods containing nuts in the lunch room, but concerned parents are not happy with the process.

"We have been shut out by the superintendent for three weeks," Denise Clifton-Jones told The News after the Viola School Board's Sept. 10 meeting. "We asked for a meeting with him and the principal. We agreed to gather information and present it to the Wellness Committee. No meeting was called."

Over May's objection, parents were allowed to address the school board, but it took no action.

Clifton-Jones discovered, shortly after school began, that students are not allowed to bring nuts or food products with nuts or peanut oil in them, when her son's peanut butter and jelly sandwich was taken by a teacher, and he was given a school lunch tray to replace it.

May said students and some faculty at the elementary school have severe allergic reactions to nuts and other foods. Five years ago, the school Wellness Committee declared Viola elementary "nut free," banning food products containing nuts, because one or more students can go into a life threatening anaphylactic shock just from ingesting nuts or coming into contact with a surface where nut residue has been left. According to May, a previous news story, which said at least one student has severe allergic reactions to just breathing near peanuts, was not correct. He is not aware of any student susceptible to airborne reactions.

Parents and grandparents and others who have researched the issue of protecting against nut allergies question the effectiveness of a "nut free" policy.

At the Sept. 10 meeting, May recommended that a group of citizens at the meeting not be allowed to speak because they had not requested, in writing, to be placed on the agenda. May cautioned board members that allowing citizens to speak, without advance notice, could lead to something inappropriate being discussed, and lead to confidentiality laws being broken if specific students or school personnel were discussed.

"When I talked to the school board president, I said I just wanted to give information. I never said I wanted to talk about a student's personal health issue," one citizen said.

Since the agenda for the meeting had been concluded, May recommended the board adjourn and speak individually with residents in the parking lot, if they wanted to.

May then outlined a plan of action recommended by the Department of Education and the School Board Association.

"They recommended we deal with this through our Wellness Committee, and that is what we had plans to do," May said. "I don't want the committee to act until they have information from people (public input). Then, after that, we bring it back and it is on the agenda at a board meeting."

Board member Max Shrable said past practice has been to allow people to speak at meetings, and the board decided to allow one representative of the concerned residents to speak, on the condition the presentation was brief and there would not be, according to board member Boyd Dailey, "a shouting, screaming match."

Amber Middlebrooks was chosen to address the board. The first issue she raised was whether the nut free policy, which was beginning its sixth year, was legal.

"Our concern about the policy that was established by the Wellness Committee is, it is not in the handbook and, the best we can tell from the handbook and the board policies that are provided on the website, it is not a board policy. Therefore, we feel it may have been unfair to enforce that policy," said Middlebrooks.

As the discussion progressed, other citizens were also allowed to speak

Clifton-Jones said Viola's nut free policy was established without evidence based research. While many school systems in Arkansas and across the nation have nut bans in place, Clifton-Jones claims that proper research would have shown that, "No medical expert would recommend the banning of food."

According to those who spoke, most experts recommend that students with food allergies, their families and school staff be educated to deal with specific food allergies, and how a cafeteria is cleaned is an important step in reducing lunchroom allergic reactions. There is support for Viola schools' policy not to use nuts or nut oils in the food served by the cafeteria. The issue is whether students should be banned from bringing peanut butter and jelly and other nut foods from home.

"Research shows that nut bans do not work," Clifton-Jones said. "It gives a false sense of security to a school, when food allergies can be handled in other ways."

Parents who want the nut ban issue revisited believe that people in the medical field should be on the committee that investigates the issue.

May said, while the school board was not involved in passing the nut ban policy, it had been briefed on the policy in the past and was aware of it.

Since some students with severe allergies will be moving to high school next year, the Superintendent said members of both the elementary and high school Wellness Committees will be involved in looking at what the school district policy should be.

In a letter sent to some parents telling them the issue would not be on the September agenda, May said, "The ban was implemented with the goal of creating a safe environment for everyone. It has been reassessed regularly, with changes made when it is deemed necessary. It will be reassessed again this year. Any concerns or suggestions which parents have will be considered during this reassessment process."

According to May, parents will be informed that their input is welcome through a letter, email, fax or phone message.

"If there is something better we should be doing, we'll do it," May said.

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