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Peanut menace? Bullies use food to torment allergic kids

When a Wenatchee, Wash., high school student smeared peanut butter on the forehead of a fellow student with a serious peanut allergy two years ago, it was so shocking that the offender faced an assault charge and four days in jail.

“What were you thinking when you did this?” district court Judge Nancy Harmon asked Joshua Hickson, then 19, before the sentencing, according to news reports.

But a new study of parents and kids living with allergies suggests that bullying of youngsters allergic to foods of all types is actually a widespread — and potentially life-threatening — worry.

About 1 in 4 kids, teens and young adults with allergies reported being teased, harassed or bullied because they were allergic, according to a new survey published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Of 353 families of kids ages birth to 25 surveyed at allergy conferences across the nation, 85 reported that their kids had been plagued because of the problem.

When children under 5 were excluded from the results, that rose to 35 percent, and among kids in grades six through 10, it was as high as 50 percent, noted Dr. Scott H. Sicherer,  a professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Verbal taunts, teasing most common

“It was a surprise from several aspects,” said Sicherer, noting that the study was the first known effort to quantify allergy bullying. “Overall, the rate was quite high.”

Nearly 4 percent of children younger than 18 in the United States have food allergies, a figure that jumped 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. Peanut allergies rose from .4 percent of kids in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2008, according to a previous study by Sicherer.

For kids with allergies, bullying can take several forms. In the new study, most of the teasing and harassment — about 65 percent — came in the form of verbal taunts and threats.

“It’s, ‘Oh, I’ve smeared peanut on the water fountain,’ or ‘Ha-ha, you can’t eat this,’” Sicherer explained.

But for 35 percent of those who responded to the survey, the bullying took a physical form. That included everything from waving a peanut butter sandwich in front of an allergic child to intentionally contaminating food with an allergen.

Twelve of the kids said that they had been touched with foods to which they were allergic, contact that could cause minor skin irritation — or a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. The chance of child being so allergic that the smell or brief touch of a food could trigger a dangerous response is remote, but the fear of such an incident is very real, Sicherer noted.

“The emotional impact is a significant factor here,” he said. “A child being bullied about anything has a significant emotional impact.”

Of 67 kids who reported consequences, about 65 percent reported being sad, depressed or embarrassed, the study showed.

Nearly 86 percent of those bullied said it had happened more than once. About 82 percent of the bullying incidents were carried out by other students, most often at schools. But, Sicherer noted, 18 of those who were bullied, or about 20 percent, were teased or harassed by a teacher or other school staff.

“When an adult does something, it’s even a heavier impact,” he observed.

Just bullying in another form

Tormenting someone because of an allergy is no different than any other form of bullying, said Judy Kuczynski, president of Bully Police USA, an advocacy group based in Minneapolis.

“It’s just another variation on theme,” she said. “Bullying is based on an imbalance of power based on contempt.”

But parents of allergic kids who fear bullying might have more forceful allies in school counselors and school nurses, staff who recognize that allergy bullying code pose a serious safety issue, Kuczynski said.

Kids who are bullied must tell their parents — and parents must tell school personnel, Sicherer said.

In the 2008 Wenatchee case, Hickson, the 19-year-old who smeared his fingers with peanut butter from someone's sandwich and then wiped it on the allergic student, was suspended from school before being convicted of simple assault. He told officers — and the judge — that he didn’t know about the seriousness of peanut allergies, news reports said.

Younger children might be excused from knowing that certain foods could cause dangerous reactions, Kuczynski said. But older teens and young adults should certainly know better.

“It’s not surprising,” she said. “It’s horrifying.”