March 1, 2003
Just before the start of the school year, the Bristol Township, PA School Board decided that students who need emergency inhalers due to asthma must keep them in the school office, rather than keeping them on hand. In September, the school board received a letter from Nancy Sander of the Allergy and Asthma Network/Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA), an asthma education group out of Virginia. The letter stated in part: "The decision to accommodate and facilitate a child’s needs with asthma is far easier than pretending their needs do not exist or that restricting student access to medications is for the safety of all students. To do so places your students with asthma at greater risk of death or missed school days, their classmates at risk of witnessing their death, and your school board at risk of lawsuits…
"If a student placed a plastic bag over a teacher’s head for a brief moment, the student would be charged with assault. But a school board voting to restrict a child’s access to his life-saving asthma medication is no less guilty of a crime. Is Bristol Township School Board really ready to accept responsibility for violating a child’s right to breathe? Are you prepared to breach the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act?"1
Days later the school board reversed the decision and now Bristol Township students are allowed to carry their asthma inhalers.
This letter should not have been necessary. Pennsylvania has a law requiring public schools to allow students to carry inhalers. There are also similar laws in sixteen other states, including Ohio. What, then, is the problem with students carrying inhalers with them to class? The inhalers that most children take are harmless to those without asthma. This is because these medications do not allow the bronchial tubes to open farther than 100%. Most schools have policies that say that it must be documented that the student has asthma, but they are allowed to carry an inhaler with them since the consequences of not being allowed to could be fatal. Case in point: New Orleans. In 1991, Catrina Lewis, a high school student, was delayed by security guards when she was trying to get to the office to get her inhaler. When the inhaler did not work, she asked the staff to call for an ambulance, but instead they spent a half-hour trying to reach her mother. Finally, Catrina’s sister called the ambulance, but they unfortunately arrived too late.
Doctors agree these inhalers should be with the student at all times. Dr. Miles Weinberger of the University of Iowa states, "The inhalers pose no abuse potential or other danger to classmates. It therefore constitutes unreasonable interference with the student’s medical care for school personnel to unilaterally restrict possession."2 There are even schools, when presented with a note from a doctor stating the student should be allowed to carry the inhaler with them, still refuse since it is a drug. This has resulted in many mothers changing school districts or even home-schooling their children. Some families have simply just pulled their children from physical education classes, which is a shame since regular exercise and activity can help asthma.
When I was in high school, my best friend Julie was asthmatic. Though our high school required that she keep her inhaler in the office, Julie kept her inhaler with her because her doctor said she should keep it with her at all times. Julie was active in athletics, but her asthma would act up at times causing her to need the inhaler. When she needed it, she would sneak to the restroom and use the inhaler, then return to class. One day Julie was caught and they confiscated her inhaler. After school at soccer practice Julie had to be rushed to the hospital because she did not have an inhaler near. Fortunately nothing happened to Julie, but this and other situations are unnecessary. Perhaps the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act of 1994 had much to do with the problems facing asthmatic students by giving federal money to those schools who enforced these drug-free policies. When did drug-free policies go from illegal drugs to prescription drugs that are both legal and in some cases life-saving?
One can understand putting potentially harmful prescription drugs in the school office if the student does not need them for sudden emergencies. However, it is unfathomable that children who are capable of handling the drugs, and have permission to do so by a doctor, are not able to keep a harmless and vital drug ready for emergencies. Have the zero-tolerance policies gone so far as to be detrimental to the lives of the children they were meant to protect? It is absurd to think school officials, very few of whom are medical doctors, are regulating the medicines necessary for these children to live long and healthy lives. Because of this, some say there should be a federal mandate allowing inhalers in school. This presents a problem; as Dr. Howard Taras, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on school health, says "I am hesitant to respond with legislation. Sometimes the treatment of the disease changes, and to get legislation off the books is a problem. It has a way of helping in the short run and harming in the long run."3
How do we prevent these incidents? Well, first a parent should be armed with the facts. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, "any school receiving federal funds must accommodate children with medical problems—even problems not severe enough to merit special education services."4 Also, in 1998 the Supreme Court decision Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, outlined exactly what parents must put in writing when complaining to school officials about discrimination under 504. (For an example of such a letter go to www.reedmartin.com) Also, you can appeal to your school’s pocket book by stressing that by not allowing the child to carry the inhaler means more sick days for the child; about half of schools are funded by average daily attendance, not average daily membership. Whatever the solution, people must know that it is a problem. Make sure your local school district allows students to carry their inhalers with them.
1 Seipp, Catherine. “Asthma Attack: When “zero tolerance” collides with children’s health”, Reason Magazine, April 2002, p. 43-44.
2 Seipp, p. 47.
3 Seipp, p. 49.
4 Seipp, p. 48.
Rebecca Fowler is a senior from Ravenna, Ohio, majoring in Political Science and Mathmatics.