Friday, January 24, 2014

On School Safety

Schools are different places now than they were even a decade ago. Within recent months, I have read articles about schools banning the game tag, banning use of all balls to play at recess, and a parent in Ontario trying to have oak trees removed from the school's property due to the possibility of allergic reactions. If you want to have a spot of fun, try reading the comments on one of those types of articles. Some commenters are more erudite, many are far more coarse (depending on your reporting site), but the general gist of the arguments are the same when distilled to their simplest forms.

The discussions tend to vacillate between a few fairly typical arguments that can be summarized into one of a few basic categories such as: "why is this crazy person trying to hurt all of the other kids by depriving them of ______"; "why can't schools just accommodate all students with any sort of special needs, regardless of how severe they are"; "that student/parent is going to have to learn to live in the real world someday so they may as well start now"; or, perhaps most ignorantly, "I don't think I should have to change to accommodate a student who can't __________."  I believe , however, that there are some nuances that should probably be explored beyond those relatively simplified statements, and I believe that a case study will help that happen.

The case of Elodie

The latest article I read in the National Post concerns the case of a Grade 1 student with a life-threatening dairy and egg allergy, and how her mother has now filed a human rights complaint based on how she was treated. The mother, Lynne Glover, alleges that her daughter, Elodie, had her rights infringed upon in the way in which the school treated her allergy by not doing their best to create an allergen-free environment. She points to the school’s continuation of a lunch program that included dairy and cheese products, the isolation of Elodie from other students at lunch to avoid contamination, the general lack of communication of Elodie’s condition to the parents of her classmates (she claims that they received only one notice), and the provision of treats like hot chocolate to all students as examples of the school’s supposed negligence.
She does acknowledge the administration did attempt to make some accommodations for her daughter’s “invisible disability,” such as offering to provide dairy-free hot chocolate or putting allergy warnings on syrup at a pancake breakfast. She further compares her daughter’s condition to the school’s prohibition of peanuts and tree-nuts as evidence that her daughter was discriminated against, as other students with similar disabilities receive preferred treatment, in her view, which is why she has filed the complaint with the human rights board. She has also alleged that her daughter's right to life has been challenged, as Elodie has already had nine anaphylactic events by the age of six.

My perspective

I agree with Glover to the extent that the school likely could have done more to care for Elodie, and that some of the actions were to an extent inconsiderate or even dangerous; for example, Glover states that students still gave out chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and it would have been quite easy for the teacher (or even for the entire school) to simply not allow for chocolates (or perhaps any other candy) to be given out by anyone. The school, at the very least, should have worked with the parents of Elodie’s classmates to increase sensitivity, even if they could not fully provide an allergen-free environment.
But I diverge from Glover’s assertions significantly after these concessions. The school simply could not accommodate Elodie’s needs without infringing significantly on the other students and their families, and I do not think they should have had to, as her needs fall outside of both the accepted realms of social acceptability and reasonable practicality, as I will outline later. Furthermore, there is no infringement of Elodie's human rights, as there (as far as we have been told) was no abuse of Elodie, her freedoms, or her privileges other than those necessary to ensure that she did not undergo an anaphylactic attack. Glover, although she states otherwise, is being unreasonable, and although it is unfortunate that she will have to make significant changes in order to accommodate Elodie's needs, it is not the school's problem that they could not meet them. I do think that my perspective needs further unpacking, though, so let's examine why the school did not have the obligation to accommodate Elodie in my view.

Social Acceptability and Reasonable Practicality

One of the primary factors in my opinion is the place of social acceptability in this discussion. Glover's comparison to the ban on peanuts and tree-nuts is ludicrous not because of the ramifications on health or human rights, but on the criterion of the social acceptability of the existing attitude toward those substances. Banning peanuts and tree-nuts has been common practice for over a decade, and it is socially acceptable to expect other parents and students to eliminate peanuts from their consumption, depending on the severity of the allergy. It is easily possible to eliminate peanuts and tree-nuts from one’s diet (although I do remember one student who for dietary and behavioural various reasons could only derive protein from peanuts), so it is acceptable to expect parents to make that adaptation. It is not socially acceptable to expect similar concessions for any other allergens on a widespread scale at this point, although there are a few on the horizon: seafood; fragrances and scents; and red dye number 5 all come to mind. It is hard for me to foresee that the attitude toward some severe allergens, such as dairy, eggs, or gluten, will ever be such that it would be socially acceptable to expect others to accommodate one student in a school.

The other significant factor is the reasonable practicality (or practical feasibility, or however you want to phrase it) of taking such an action at all. It is quite simply not feasible to ask all of the parents in a class, much less an entire school, to make accommodation to meet the needs of one student, regardless of how severe those needs might be, unless given significant enough reason to do so. This might seem like an argument against providing safe environments for all students, but it's really just a statement that some people have needs that lie outside of reasonable practical application. For example, it is reasonable to expect schools to accommodate students, staff, and community with physical disabilities by installing ramps, elevators, etc., and it is unreasonable (not to mention socially unacceptable) to not make those accommodations. It is not reasonable, however, to expect the school to, say, offer extracurricular sports in which that student could participate, or even to expect that all services of the school would be accessible to that student. The school does have the responsibility of creating equivalent services as much as possible, but they do not have to be identical. In Elodie's case, it seems unreasonable (despite Glover's protestations otherwise) to expect a wider dairy and egg free environment.


Let's look fragrances as an example. Strong fragrances and scents are commonly banned as sensitivities to scents are increasing in the general population, and it is widely accepted for schools and other public institutions to be "scent-free" or "fragrance-free". Perfumes and colognes are not necessary, and it is now socially acceptable for students or teachers with that sensitivity to expect a certain amount of accommodation. But say, for example, that a student had an extreme anaphylactic allergy to all scents, including all body washes, soaps, detergents, and shampoos. It would not be reasonable to expect that an entire school community be asked to accommodate such an extreme situation (which is essentially what Glover has asked of her daughter's school). The reasonable solution is for that, in co-ordination with the school district and government, to find an alternative and reasonable equivalent solution to accommodate the needs of that student.

I, for one, although I do not have a diagnosed allergy, am very sensitive to scents, and I often get light-headedness and headaches when I am exposed to scents for even a short period. My father has a similar reaction, so we always avoided scents in our house, and now my wife has to be very careful about what fragrances she uses. I also make sure that friends and co-workers are aware of my sensitivity, so that they, say, don't light incense when I'm coming over, as an example. But, at the same time, I am conscious of the limits of my social influence and how socially acceptable my requests may or may not be. I would not approach a random stranger about their scents in the mall; not only is it not socially appropriate for me to do so, but it is not necessary, as I can avoid them. Malls are a great example, actually, as they often contain any number of bath and body stores in which products are sold with significant scents; my option is to either endure it or to not go by those stores or into malls. Now, I do understand that while my condition is a mild annoyance, Elodie's condition is life-threatening, and so the two are not directly comparable. But I still have to accommodate for situations outside of my control and act reasonably given the circumstances.

The responsibility of each party

With the concepts of social acceptability and reasonable practicality in mind, it is important to determine the responsibilities of each party involved in order to determine the possible solutions to this situation. There are three primary parties here connected to Elodie's care: her mother, the school (including the teachers), the school board, and the provincial government. Glover, as Elodie's mother, is responsible for the primary care of her daughter, and is responsible for helping find a suitable environment in which Elodie can remain physically, emotionally, socially, and psychologically healthy. She attempted to do that at the school, but in her determination the school was not meeting the criteria as she determined them to be (which is not necessarily as they are). She will now be caring for Elodie at home until suitable conditions can be found, so she is taking on the most responsibility right now.
The school is responsible for creating a safe environment for Elodie along those same criteria, which I believe they did to the best of their ability, with the few aforementioned possible mistakes. Although they were not able to create an environment that met Glover's criteria, they did meet (and I would argue at times exceed) their requirement to help keep Elodie safe. The fact that Glover chose to remove Elodie was her own decision, not the school's, and the school, as it seems, is not responsible for this situation. The school board is responsible for keeping the school and its employees accountable, which it seems that they have. That leaves only party remaining: the provincial government.

The government

The government is responsible for ensuring that there are accommodations for Elodie's education, whether that is in a school environment or not. They are ultimately responsible for helping all other parties and mediating any conflicts between those parties, as is happening now. They are also responsible for evaluating the school board and their accountability processes, as well as ensuring that all laws are followed both in the schools and in the judicial appeals process. In short, it's a very broad mandate, as there are many levels of government involved in even one case like Elodie's, and it turns even relatively simple issues like this case into very complex entities. Their responsibilities are further complicated by ideology, whether it is libertarian or conservative (not that those are necessarily opposed) or whatever other beliefs might affect the implementation of their decisions on individuals. So let's simplify things as much as possible.

The government is responsible for helping ensure that there is viable, affordable education for each child as set out by the established parameters and guidelines of time, content, and methodology, and for making sure that any disruptions to any of those facets are treated appropriately. What the government is not responsible for is providing education in exactly the way each parent would like for their child. For example, some parents might like to have more time spent in the arts, but not every school chooses to engage those subjects beyond the provincially-mandated minimums. The easiest way to deal with a shortage of arts would be to find a school that does focus more on the arts; of course, if such a school were not to exist, then the options are either to choose private education or to work within the system to encourage the government to change if that is not possible. The additional services that private schools offer are essentially the services that the government does not feel that is reasonable to offer in all schools, and though I often differ with the government on those assertions, I do respect their right to set them as they see fit (so long as I have the right to not like them and to make my dislike known). In this case, the government might look at establishing an alternative school for students with extreme needs like Elodie's or providing applications for funds for home schooling or for tuition for private schools that can accommodate Elodie. While none of these solutions might seem optimal, they would still be reasonable given the circumstances. And it is the government's responsibility to find or otherwise establish reasonable solutions.

The conclusion

After all of this deliberation, it might seem anticlimactic to arrive at what was more or less my initial point: that  Glover's position is untenable and unreasonable and that the school is ultimately innocent of the accusation of violation of Elodie's human rights. If my comments seem a little libertarian, it's probably because they lean that way, though I do often find myself still in strong consideration of social conscience (and I abhor the idea that the two ideologies are necessarily opposed). It will be interesting to see how the government responds not only to Glover's official complaint, regardless of its validity. The provincial government, in conjunction with the municipal authorities and school boards, will have to work at finding a solution that works for all parties, and it seems that that process will not be simple or straight forward.

On a personal note (lest you consider me a soulless automaton), I do empathize with Glover and her difficulties in finding suitable situations for Elodie. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for her knowing her daughter's challenges, and I cannot even begin to think about the fear she must feel every time Elodie has had an anaphylactic attack. I think it is terribly unfortunate that the situation is such as it is and that Elodie's needs cannot be accommodated by the school, and I concede that I might feel differently were it to be my child's health and safety in question. Still, I cannot condone her equation of this situation with a human rights issue, and I think that it is reasonable that she should find other avenues of caring for her daughter. I can only hope that all parties involved are cooperative and collaborative in helping her find a solution, rather than considering the matter closed because Elodie is no longer in the school. I do know how difficult making these accommodations can be from the perspective of a teacher, and I truly hope that Glover can find a school that is able to care for Elodie in way that meets her needs and that is reasonable and sustainable.

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