Parent pushing for nut-free school: 'You’re dealing with a child’s life'

Parent pushing for nut-free school: 'You’re dealing with a child’s life' »Play Video
A Portland mother wants to take these peanut butter and jelly sandwiches off the menu at her child's school. Her son is allergic to nuts.

A Portland first-grader’s nut allergy isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s also a matter of life and death. It’s why the boy’s parents are pushing for Portland Public Schools to make his school nut-free.

“It does lead to death, it does lead to comas. It’s making news all across the country. Kids are dying from not actually swallowing the product,” the boy’s mom, Grazia Cunningham, said.

Cunningham feels Portland Public Schools could prevent a local tragedy by taking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches off the menu at Beverly Cleary Elementary School, where her son attends. While his classroom is already nut-free, she worries about the residue of sticky peanut butter on other kids’ hands.

“With the world of food allergies, it's minutes, it takes minutes for these reactions,” Cunningham said. “When you don't have eyes on someone all the time, like when you're in a classroom with 28 kids, it's really hard to react in time.”

A Portland Public Schools representative said there are several safety and sanitation protocols already in place.

“It's the cleanest classroom probably in Portland Public Schools, and for a good reason," said spokeswoman Erin Hoover Barnett. “If a child's safety is a question, we have to get all over it, and that's what we've done in this situation.”

Barnett also points to the sandwiches themselves as a precaution the district takes. She said Smucker’s Uncrustables come in sealed, individual packaging, so there is less cross-contamination.

Cunningham recognizes it would be a big change, but she said she’s offered to help come up with alternatives for her son’s school.

“I think Portland Public Schools has a real opportunity here to be forward thinking and put prevention at the forefront and prevent a tragedy before it occurs,” she said. “You’re dealing with a child’s life. The inconvenience of it pales in comparison to potential outcome for this child.”

Portland school board member Steve Buel has been pushing for a policy change for four months, but he can’t get enough board members to agree to take up the issue for a vote.

“If we can’t fix this, what about all the other things?” Buel said. “This should have been solved in one 30-second phone call.”

Board co-chair Greg Belisle echoed the sentiment of the district spokesperson.

“I expect the highest level of responsiveness and accountability when providing for a student with a high-risk health concern,” Belisle said in an email. “I appreciate the careful protocols PPS has put in place to address this specific case.”

Cunningham doesn’t buy it.

“If you’ve ever experienced and watched anyone take their last breath, or have trouble breathing, it’s something you never, ever, ever want to deal with again,” she said. “You can’t protect your kid from everything, but you can certainly try to fight for your child no matter what.”