Action follows reaction

Campaign: An Arundel couple is working to keep the foods that trigger potentially fatal allergies in their son out of county classrooms. Allergic reaction triggers activism

January 22, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

For four months in the fall term, 11-year-old Derek Cope went to school afraid for his life. It wasn't the bullies or the teachers who scared him.

It was the milk.

Derek, a sixth-grader at Meade Middle School on Fort Meade, has a severe allergy to dairy and beef products. Coming into contact with those foods could send him into anaphylactic shock -- and even kill him.

But throughout the fall term, Meade pupils were taking their lunches -- filled with the foods that trigger his allergies -- back to classrooms where they got extra help from teachers or served detention.

Concerned about a life-threatening allergic reaction, Derek's parents have spent months fighting the Anne Arundel County school system to keep him safe -- a battle that parents of allergic children are waging across the nation.

At one point, the Copes pulled Derek out of school. He recently returned to the classroom, where food is now banned, but his parents are still pushing for a new county policy to safeguard children like their son.

"Derek has been placed in more danger this year than ever before," said his mother, April Cope.

Nationwide, schools have become more sensitive to children with allergies. Some have banned peanut butter. Others direct children to wash their hands after lunch. And many, including all schools in Anne Arundel County, have provided nurses with injectors with medication that combats allergic reactions.

About two million school-age children in the United States have food allergies, and the number is increasing, says the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. School nurses in Anne Arundel also report an increase, though the county could not provide specific numbers.

"We're seeing more peanut butter allergies, and we don't know why," said Gene Saderholm, deputy director of clinics and school health for the county. The number of children with asthma also has increased, to about 5,000 this year in a school system with 75,000 students.

But milk allergies as severe as Derek's are still unusual -- and schools often are unprepared to deal with them. Meade Principal M. Jacques Smith says that in his 33 years as an educator, he's never encountered such a severe allergy.

For years, Derek's parents took it upon themselves to keep him safe at school. They chaperoned every field trip and say with pride that he has not missed a single one. At Jessup Elementary and Meade, they arranged for Derek to sit at a separate cafeteria table, which a custodian wiped before he could eat.

They made food for hundreds of children so Derek could take part in parties. For Derek's fifth-grade graduation from Jessup, his mother baked cakes -- free of milk protein -- for all 350 pupils.

"The sole reason was so Derek could attend," said April Cope.

She knows how quickly an allergic reaction can overtake her son. In preschool, he took a sip of milk from a classmate's cup. School officials gave him an injection of epinephrine and called his mother.

To be safe, April Cope and the school's director decided to take Derek to the hospital. But on the way, he had trouble breathing and lost consciousness. Mucus poured out of his mouth and nose, his mother recalls, as the school director ran red lights, blowing her car horn and flashing her lights.

It took doctors two hours to stabilize him, and he had to take steroids for a week.

"I held him in my arms when he was on the verge of death," April Cope said. "I can never forget that."

At Jessup, the Copes last year worked out a "Federal 504" plan -- mandated by federal law -- which spells out accommodations for children with disabilities. It banned dairy and beef products from Derek's classrooms.

April Cope and her husband, David, assumed the plan would carry over to Meade. But school officials said such plans must be renewed every year to account for changing conditions, and at Meade, children had been bringing their lunches into classrooms for years, mostly for tutoring.

"This has been a positive thing because it gave kids more contact hours with teachers, and the kids seem to enjoy it," Smith said.

At first, Smith and David Cope agreed to allow children to eat in Derek's classrooms as long as teachers cleaned up after them. But April Cope worried that wasn't being done properly. Some children, she said, dumped their milk in the water fountain.

"It made me feel uncomfortable because I wasn't sure if I was gonna get sick or not ... ," Derek said. "That's stressful when you're supposed to be doing your work."

His parents sent a half-dozen letters to school officials, from the principal to the superintendent. Frustrated by the officials' inaction and fearful for Derek's life, the Copes pulled him out of school last month and made arrangements for home-schooling.

They told their story to the county school board this month, and shortly after that interim Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson ordered that dairy and beef products be kept out of Derek's classrooms.

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