We’ve all heard stories about kids literally being hounded to suicide by long and sustained campaigns of bullying. But The Washington Post recently uncovered a scary phenomenon in which bullying can kill–literally. In recent years, a number of bullies have targeted kids with food allergies by using their allergies against them.
As early as 2010, a study in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that kids with food allergies were often the targets of “common, frequent, and repetitive” bullying. Never mind that food allergies can often cause kids’ throats to swell shut, making it impossible for them to breathe–even in small amounts.
Soon after that study was released, Scott Sicherer, a pediatrics professor at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, noticed disturbing trends in some of his patients. Many of them complained about being teased about their allergies. Even worse, some kids claimed their classmates made them touch food that they knew set off their allergies. In many cases, parents didn’t even know that their kids had been targeted in this way.
This led Sicherer to do a study of 250 families from a nearby allergy clinic. A staggering 31 percent of them reported being the targets of bullying, but only half of their parents knew about it. The kids’ quality of life greatly improved once their parents knew about the bullying.
Sicherer believes that this sort of bullying can be nipped in the bud if more people know about the serious–and potentially deadly–consequences of food allergies. To that end, Food Allergy Research and Education ran a PSA during 2013 about the effects of food allergy bullying. Watch it here.
But a lot more needs to be done, as evidenced by a potentially deadly incident that happened at a Southern California elementary school in 2015. Several fifth-graders got the bright idea to throw peanuts at a classmate who had a peanut allergy. He begged them to stop, warning them that if even one nut hit him, it could kill him. When he turned away, one of the boys slipped peanuts in the allergic student’s lunch container. Fortunately, his friends saw it in time and threw it out. The bully was deservedly suspended, while the allergic student’s friends were later recognized at an awards ceremony.
In October, “The Doctors” discussed a number of other disturbing incidents involving food allergy bullying. Watch here.
Among other things, kids had peanut butter smeared on their lockers and peanut butter crackers rubbed in their hair.
To Sandra Beasley, who grew up with a myriad of food allergies, these are textbook cases of how food allergy bullying “elevates play into violence.” She wrote a book in 2012, “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl,” about her experiences. Linda Herbert, an assistant professor at Children’s National Health System, adds that it takes the traditional reason kids get bullied–because they’re different–to another level. She recalled a number of instances where kids were the targets of “very active attacks.” One bully actually smeared peanut butter on a child and told him, “I dare you to die today.”
Incredibly, this kind of bullying can go all the way up to the college level. In October, Dale Merza, member of the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity at Central Michigan University smeared peanut butter on the face of freshman Andrew Seely, causing his face to swell up. The brothers were well aware that Seely had a peanut allergy. When he told his parents about it in March, a criminal investigation resulted in Merza being brought up on misdemeanor charges.
The fact this could happen at the college level is more proof that food allergy bullying, like all forms of bullying, has to be nipped in the bud early. As is the case with bullying in general, both kids and parents need to be put on notice that bullying is not a joke. It’s very serious. And in this case, it can kill.
(featured image courtesy Mlheco, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA license)