Many of you probably saw the blog post by a young Washington state woman titled, “How I was Kicked Out of College Because of My Allergy.” The blog post was taken down, but a local news station interviewed this young woman here. I was horrified and confused how this situation had occurred, especially after the young lady contacted the Disability Services Office of her school.
Since my son, Morgan, is now 17 years old and a junior in high school, we have begun the college search in earnest. It is frightening at times how little a college really knows about food allergies. However, colleges and universities need to get ready. There are approximately 15 million Americans with food allergies; and one out of 12 are under age 18. That’s about two in every classroom. Guess where they are going to end up? In college!
I wrote a blog post last year about Food Allergy, College & 504 Plans after attending a talk by a Senior Attorney with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in Denver. The OCR Attorney suggests that all students with food allergies should start with the school’s Disabilities Services Office (DSO) rather than go directly to the Dining & Housing Office and ask for assistance. The DSO is more likely to know what is legally required with accommodations to access the curriculum. The problem we found is that if you go to DSO first, prior to being admitted to a university/college, you might find your child not admitted. While this is not supposed to occur, it’s easy to see how it could.
When I called a ‘certain’ Colorado university last year inquiring about meeting with the DSO when our family was visiting the school, I was told that they wouldn’t meet with us unless their 6 pages of paperwork had been completed AND that an accommodation had been determined to be warranted. I then asked how many students with food allergies the DSO had dealt with. The woman I spoke to had never heard of one student! She did say she was on the job for only a month, but that really didn’t help me feel any better. If this wasn’t part of her training, my son would be in for a long road toward educating the DSO about food allergies and what accommodations could be expected. Additionally, we didn’t want to put a big red “A” (for allergies!) on his application to the engineering program which is a highly competitive program. It would certainly be easy for them to deny my son’s application under the auspices of anything but accommodating for food allergies. (I later learned that the information we had gotten about not meeting with us until paperwork was completed was erroneous. Lesson learned: ALWAYS ASK TO SPEAK WITH THE HIGHEST LEVEL MANAGER IN THE DSO OFFICE!!)
I’ve spoken with the OCR Senior Attorney several times through the last year about numerous situations in schools where food allergies are concerned. One thing to remember is that public K-12 schools are held to the standard of FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education, while public colleges are held to the standard of “reasonable accommodations.” The attorney prefers to not get hung up on the term ‘reasonable’ and instead to focus on “effective” accommodations for the student. The question becomes – What’s reasonable to accomplish an equal opportunity for the student? The accommodation has to be effective.
The idea is that the DSO of a school and a student should have a continued dialogue to determine what accommodations are necessary. In this interactive process, the school goes back to the student to see what’s working and what isn’t. The student reports back to the DSO with similar information. There aren’t magic solutions or one-size-fits-all. It may take some creativity, and it also varies with each student and each school. While it may be reasonable for a professor to learn how to administer an EpiPen – in a class of 300 students, is it effective? Additionally, this process necessitates that a student have complete understanding about the exact nature of their food allergy. Do they have contact issues? Have they ever had an inhalant reaction? What accommodations will be necessary for the student to have equal access to the curriculum?
There are two affirmative defenses for a college to deny an accommodation request by a student: 1) the accommodation would require a fundamental alteration of an academic program and 2) the accommodation would put an undue financial or administrative burden on the school.
The OCR Attorney told me that food allergies are a new experience for colleges, and neither the OCR nor colleges have come up with solutions. There really is very little that the OCR can do, other than provide guidance at this point since every student and every college is different. I was told that the OCR comes out with “Dear Colleague” letters to colleges on various topics, and such a letter about food allergies is somewhere in the queue. The release date of this has not yet been determined.