Standard of Reasonableness Prevails in Sixth Circuit’s First IDEA Peanut Allergy Case

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Peanut allergies are common in public schools today.

In litigation instituted under the IDEA, parents and school districts are often at odds about almost everything. One thing that they tend to agree on, however, is that the safety of the student is of critical importance. There tends to be a disconnect, however, about the meaning of the term “safety” when one compares the perspective of parents and school officials. This disconnect is front and center in IDEA cases involving allergies because, in some cases, the quality of a plan for a student can have life and death consequences. This can be compounded when a student’s disabilities may prevent or inhibit him or her from relaying signs and symptoms to teachers. Nevertheless, although the IDEA requires schools to consider a student’s health or functional needs in evaluating students and developing IEPs, see 34 CFR 300.304(b)(4); 34 CFR 300.324(a)(iv); it does not impose clear procedures for addressing allergies specifically.

The common practice for many districts is to address allergy needs in the form of a written health plan developed in conjunction with the student’s physician and school nursing staff. In conjunction with this, IEPs are often updated to include information about the allergy and its impact on the student’s education or placement. But, for parents who understandably want nothing short of a guarantee of their children’s safety, the question inevitably arises as to whether the IDEA requires schools to do more? In the recent decision, Barney v. Akron Bd. of Educ, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 5437 (6th Cir. 2019), the Sixth Circuit says “no.”

In Barney, an IDEA-eligible student had a peanut allergy for which the school had developed a written health plan. Among other things, it called for the limitation of peanut products in his classroom and permitted the provision of medication if a reaction occurred at school. His IEP also included information about the allergy and his health plan. Despite the precautions in the plan, food servers accidentally sent sealed containers of peanut butter to the student’s classroom on one occasion. A staff member in the room noticed the error early on and sent the student to another room to eat lunch as a precaution. Nonetheless, the parent came to school after learning of the incident, contended contra the observations of school staff that he was having an allergic reaction, and took him to the hospital. Notably, the record was silent as to whether the student was in fact diagnosed with a reaction at the hospital. Regardless, a few days later the parent withdrew the student from school and filed for an IDEA due process hearing..

At every level of the proceedings, the parent’s claims were rejected. No procedural or substantive violations of the IDEA were found and the student’s health plan was found to be adequate. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed. Citing the long-standing rule that a student’s IEP need only be “reasonably calculated” to provide educational benefit to satisfy the IDEA, the Court found that the allergy had been sufficiently addressed in the student’s IEP and health plan. In other words, the Court was not concerned that the school’s plan was not perfect because the student may have had a reaction at school. Rather, the Court was satisfied that the district’s plan appeared to make reasonable attempts to keep the student safe at school notwithstanding his allergy.

Although peanut and other allergies are common in public schools today, Barney is the first time that the Sixth Circuit has set a standard for accounting for student allergies under the IDEA. As such, this decision is critical becuase it will provide a road map for District Courts, hearing officers, and state-level review panels in deciding IDEA claims relating to student allergies in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan.