A kid calling another kid a “stupid-head” or poking fun at their Power Rangers T-shirt is one thing. A kid deliberately smearing nacho cheese on the face of a kid who’s allergic to dairy is, in fact, punishable by law.
“My son washed it off and didn’t have a reaction, thank goodness, but it scared him,” Bridget Starbuck, a mother in Kansas whose son with severe food allergies had the aforementioned cheese smeared on his face, told The New York Times. It’s depressing, but it seems inevitable that asshole kids are exploiting such weaknesses in the name of getting one over on each other — after all, finding out where someone might be vulnerable and poking them in their soft spot is just what bullies do. “The nature of humanity is, I guess, to find cracks and attack there,” Kandice Williams, another mother whose son was victim to food allergy bullying, told NPR. (In this case, Williams’ son — who has an egg allergy — had mayonnaise shoved in his face by his bowling teammates.)
Rachel Annunziato, associate professor of psychology at Fordham and one of the authors of a 2014 study that found that as many as 32 percent of children with food allergies have been bullied at least once, tells me that this behavior is based on all other types of bullying, whereby someone is assailed for their differences. “As others become aware of children with allergies and corresponding restrictions, those with food allergies may be perceived as ‘different’ and therefore vulnerable to bullying,” she says, defining it as any act that preys on a child’s food allergies. “For example, teasing/taunting about the allergy or waving the allergen at the child.”
This sort of bullying has become more prominent in recent years for the simple reason that more kids have food allergies these days. NPR reports that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children with food allergies increased by 18 percent from 1997 to 2007. But Annunziato also thinks it’s also gained greater visibility because kids are more vigilant in calling out their own allergies and identifying them to others.
For concerned parents who may feel helpless knowing they can’t protect their child when they’re not around, Annunziato suggests partnering with school personnel to prevent or address it. “School-based interventions to decrease/eliminate bullying have shown strong empirical support,” she says. “In addition, if a child is facing emotional consequences of bullying (or having a food allergy), parents can help by reaching out to a mental health professional.”
The seriousness of the phenomenon certainly needs addressing. While traditional bullying obviously has terrible mental health implications over time, food allergy bullying can be as immediately dangerous as threatening a child with a gun. “Kids may think something like that is funny, but when a child has an allergy, this is like an assault with a deadly weapon,” Starbuck told The New York Times in the same article.
For that reason, parents were furious over a scene in the new Peter Rabbit movie that they believed made light of food allergies. In the scene, farmer Tom McGregor — who’s allergic to blackberries — struggles to inject himself with an EpiPen and collapses after the rabbits (the good guys!) pelt him with blackberries to gain access to his garden. “This is a huge step backwards,” Jean Kintisch of Wayne, who runs the Facebook group Food and Environmental Allergy Support Team (F.E.A.S.T.) told Philly.com.
In light of the severity of the act, there’s already legal precedent in charging offenders. Early this year, for example, a 14-year-old girl was charged with felony aggravated assault after she rubbed pineapple on her hand and high-fived a girl known to have a severe pineapple allergy, reports The Washington Post. In August of last year, a student at Central Michigan University pled guilty to assault and battery for smearing peanut butter on the face of an unconscious student with a severe peanut allergy, reported The New York Times.
Some schools have already taken a proactive approach to dealing with this new form of bullying. “Washington Yu Ying is a public charter school in D.C. that has woven food allergy awareness into the curriculum since it opened a decade ago,” reported NPR. But really, as with every other kind of bullying, the onus falls on the parents: Specifically, to take responsibility for not raising a bunch of burgeoning assholes.