Food Allergy Bullying
It is the bullying of those with food allergies.
I first encountered food allergy bullying when Sahil was 5 and in Senior Kindergarten. He was in a small school with just 8 other children in his class. He and another child were the only boys so being friends with that one other boy was very important to him. That boy knew this. He often told Sahil to do things which would get him in trouble like saying a bad word which Sahil, not knowing the meaning of, would do in order to keep his friend. This boy also teased Sahil about his peanut allergy. He told Sahil he had peanuts in his lunch and said he would put it in Sahil’s food. We met with Sahil’s teacher and the head of the school many times but they did not seem to understand the seriousness of the boy’s threats. They justified the other boy’s behaviour because of his difficult home life and absent father. We decided not to enrol Sahil there for grade 1 because they were not taking his food allergies and the food allergy bullying seriously.
The switch to the local public school was not easy. We had to meet with the principal many times and eventually the superintendent just to get basic safety features put in place including an adult lunch supervisor for Sahil’s grade one class. It eventually worked out. And there were many more kids with whom he could develop friendships. Sahil is in grade 8 now. He still gets teased about his allergies – passing comments mostly – he says it does not bother him. He cannot attend all social events so he still experiences exclusion – mostly because his friends don’t know how to accommodate him and they are making plans on their own now. I have to work with him on that part – how to advocate for himself and research the places they want to go so he can find out if he should bring his own food or if safe food can be prepared.
Jaya has also faced exclusion and bullying. At her previous school starting in grade 1 they celebrated with food for each student’s birthday. She was there for 2 years. The first year (SK) was great – her teachers and children’s house head were communicative and made sure she was included in all activities even those including food. The second year (grade 1) was very different. The teachers sent her to another classroom to eat while the other kids celebrated with the birthday child – usually pizza and cake. When I asked if that practice could be re-examined to prevent her exclusion they were shocked that I would try and change a school tradition. They continued to have many food events from which she was excluded. They justified excluding her to keep her physically safe. Sadly, her psychological safety wasn’t recognized. They just didn’t get it. It was apparent at an end of year meeting that the teachers who she would be with for grade 2 and 3 were defensive when I tried to explain how Jaya was feeling. For this reason we switched her to the local public school last year. The staff has been very understanding and communicative and mostly Jaya is happy. However, she has been bullied at this school too – a few weeks ago they teased her for having to go home for pizza lunch and followed her around with a slice of pizza on her way out. And a couple weeks ago, a boy was swinging around a cheese string and would not stop.
The staff addressed the issues and connected with me so I hope the incidents will end there. I encourage Jaya and Sahil to let me know about incidents of bullying so we can work through them together and they can learn how to advocate for themselves.