SOUTHWEST HARBOR — A meeting last week for parents of Pemetic Elementary School students concerned about a no-nuts policy at the school provided no new information about the situation.
One reason there is little public information about the situation is that school officials are bound by state and federal law from discussing the specific case of a student with a severe allergy to nuts.
Pemetic students wishing to bring nut products, such as peanut butter sandwiches, to school are required to store and eat their lunch at the nearby Harbor House facility. This, school officials said, has led to misunderstanding about the seriousness of the situation.
Last month, the school was presented with a petition from concerned parents calling for administrators to assign one room in the school where students could eat foods containing nuts. Having students leave school grounds to eat is “unacceptable,” the petitioners stated.
The Jan. 8 meeting was scheduled to allay some of the petitioners’ concerns. It soon was obvious that their demand to set aside a room in the school was not going to happen at this time. The intensity of the nut allergy prohibits this from happening, school officials said.
In this particular case, the allergy is considered a disability, and the student is protected by a 504 plan, which under federal law is an individualized educational plan designed to meet the needs of that student.
Broadly, a student qualifies for a 504 plan if they have “a physical or mental impairment that limits a major life activity,” said Kelly Sanborn, director of special services for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System.
Allergies can qualify a student for a 504 plan. It’s a civil rights issue, said school attorney Eric Herlan.
“Kids with allergies will almost always be protected by the law,” Herlan said. “Although it sounds like special rights, it is equal rights.”
One parent asked about the effect the nut ban could have on another student who has diabetes and needs nuts as part of his or her diet. In the case of “competing rights,” the courts have said schools should seek to find a balance, Herlan replied.
At Pemetic, “we’re working to do that,” Sanborn added.
School district Superintendent Howard Colter said the situation at Pemetic is “unusual,” and the decision to go nut-free was not done without careful consideration.
“I assure you it was not a knee-jerk decision,” Colter said. “Most, if not all schools with kids with allergies have worked out plans where the students can be accommodated within the school building. What you have here is much more of a challenge to be nut-free.”
The decision to ban nuts was made only after consulting with professionals in the medical and legal fields, Colter said. The situation is being closely monitored.
“I anticipate that someday the restrictions can be loosened,” Colter said.
For parents who need help planning nutritional lunches that do not include peanut butter or other nut products, the school is taking a proactive approach. Emily Brown, the school nurse, will begin a class for parents at 4 p.m. Tuesday to discuss food options.
The goal, school officials said, is for every student to be safe at school. With the passage of time, making that happen district-wide most likely will require similar accommodations; these types of medical issues are becoming more common.
“It’s a matter of time before many of our schools are confronted with these decisions,” Sanborn said.