Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Exclusion, Accommodation, Inclusion: Three Choices For Every School

There's an excellent video out right now that demonstrates all the many places our children are left out in school:

My son has been in so many of these situations, particularly the one where there's nothing safe to eat at the classroom party and the teacher says "well gosh, guess you might as well go off to the library." 

When my son was little, allergies were fairly new to the school scene and my husband and I were afraid to ask for too much from our schools. We didn't really even know what to ask for. We certainly didn't understand that schools are mandated to include children in the "least restrictive environment." 

After 12 years in the public school system, I've learned a great deal. Unfortunately, it's too late for my own child. However, I thought the following matrix might give you parents of younger child something to think about and discuss with your schools:

Parents provide all special treats and are present at activities they deem problematic (resulting in lost time from work/extra expense); student sent out in the hall or to the library when there’s unsafe food in the classroom
Provided with “safe” area and own food (“treat box”)
No foods used in the classroom that are not safe for student, including holiday parties, math teaching aids, language/culture days, etc.; special classroom party fund is collected and used to purchase all treats; trained school staff member is available for field trips or other high-risk activities
Eats lunch in own area, separate from other children
Eats at an allergen-free table
Allergic child eats wherever he/she wants; children who bring peanut-containing foods sit at a specific peanut table
Cannot participate in after-school activities involving food (pancake breakfasts, sports events with concessions, ice cream socials, etc.)
School ensures there is at least one allergen-free option for the child at each event
School social events are food-free
Burden of educating staff members about allergies falls to parent and/or no education occurs
School passively disseminates information/allergy “sheet” on a limited basis, such as a classroom binder or only to the health staff
School actively trains all individuals throughout the district, including transportation staff and school volunteers
Brings lunch from home; no accommodation for forgotten lunch; school food service takes no responsibility for allergic reactions
School food service periodically provides ingredient lists to students who request it
Food service trained in cross-contamination; documented procedure with multiple check-points for allergic student lunch; identified substitute lunch available that is allergen-free

I'm sure there are many more examples we could add to this table. But it does demonstrate an important point: we need to do more than complain about how our children are treated. We also need to demonstrate what it is that we want from schools. What does inclusion really look like?

When I was a jr. high school student, I received an important lesson in inclusion. Our school had a deaf student attending. The student had an aide who would translate all lessons and spoken interactions into sign language. 

Our school administrator could have looked at the situation and said "Great - I'm done." The child was accommodated and included, at least on the surface. However, my guess is that the administrator really looked at the situation and realized that 7th grade children were very unlikely to interact with the deaf child because of the presence of the adult interpreter. He felt compassion for this isolated child. He wanted inclusion, not just accommodation. 

The result was that every single child in that school was required to take a course in sign language. It was included in one of the elective blocks for the year. As a result, ALL of us were at least able to sign "hello" and a few key phrases to the deaf child and we delighted in showing him our new-found skills. 

I don't know if there were parents banging on the door, demanding that their children learn more useful skills. I don't know if teachers complained that the administrator was disrupting their set schedules. But I do know that child felt more included. I still remember his shy smile every time I signed "hello." 

It's ironic that our schools are investing in programs like "Character Counts" to develop core ethical values when they have an opportunity right in front of them with food-allergic kids. It just takes a commitment to truly include our kids...and a little creative thinking.