There was an episode of the much beloved, but sadly short lived, show Freaks and Geeks, where the endearingly geeky character Bill Haverchuck (played by Martin Starr) falls prey to an especially sadistic and cruel prank by the school bully. While “wedgies” and “debagging” would seem like enough punishment for the terminally geeky, this episode of the show illustrated how a vicious prank can go terribly wrong (as if there is any other way for a vicious prank to go) when aimed at someone with serious food allergies.
Haverchuck, unbeknownst to him, has his sandwiched laced by his tormentor with peanuts; a food that he is horribly allergic. Instead of being turned on to the wonderful crunch of peanuts, Haverchuck is rushed to the hospital and becomes, yet another, victim to grade school bullying.
As with all bullying (and we have heard about a lot of it recently) while it is often shamefully heartless, none of it is all that original. Children (and believe it or not, some adults) will routinely target the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of others as a way to subjugate the defenseless, while making themselves feel more powerful. And this fictionalized account from Freaks and Geeks of allergy bullying reveals a method of torment that is sadly not at all rare.
According to a recent study conducted to assess the social impact of food allergies in children, Mount Sinai researchers have discovered (and this is somewhat staggering) that approximately 35 percent of children with food allergies, who are over the age of five, were reported to have experienced bullying, teasing, or harassment as a result of their allergies, and 86 percent were reported to have experienced repeated episodes. Some of these episodes can be somewhat brutal, like MSNBC reported incident where a Washington state high school student smeared peanut butter on the forehead of a fellow student with a serious peanut allergy (the aggressor was hit with an assault charge and four days in jail).
It is estimated that nearly one in 25 children suffers from some sort of food allergy, which is a percentage that has been steadily climbing. So this sort of terror (if we could call it that) poses a growing and possibly life-threatening problem. “We know that food allergy in children affects quality of life and causes issues like anxiety, depression, and stress for them and their parents,” said Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “However, our study is the first to explore teasing, harassment and bullying behaviors aimed at these children. The results are disturbing, as they show that children not only have to struggle with managing their food allergies, but also commonly bear harassment from their peers.”
One surprising element of the study revealed that while classmates were the most common perpetrators, surprisingly more than 20 percent reported harassment or teasing from teachers and other school staff. As if it weren’t bad enough to be targeted by your peers, the chronically allergic have to navigate hostile adults who should naturally serve as allies, or protectors, in these situations.
While the study does little to address anything more than the prevalence of bullying, as it is related to food allergies, it does bring to light, yet another, vulnerability that can be exploited by those who choose to intimidate and torment. The emotional impact, as with all forms of bullying, is most significant here (as there have been no reports of any fatalities stemming from these incidents) and it is important to note that a child being bullied about anything will undoubtedly suffer.
Again, while this information is eye opening, it just reveals another advancing battle line in the perceived war on bullying. Has anyone had first hand experience with allergy bullying? If you have a child who is allergic, how do you go about protecting them from these sorts of threats? Should this form of bullying be treated any differently than your garden variety bullying?