The stickiest problem at Ridge Street Elementary School in Rye Brook, N.Y., this year wasn’t discipline in the classroom. It was peanut butter in the lunchroom.

In a situation repeated in schools across the nation, families debated the right to safeguard a profoundly allergic child versus the right to eat a sandwich made with the all-American spread.

“We were obligated, legally and ethically, to be responsive to this child’s needs,” Principal Roberta Kirshbaum said. “I would say 95 percent of our population became educated and supportive and the other 5 percent found it just didn’t fit with them.”

The importance of schools in protecting allergic children was vividly demonstrated in May in Spokane, Wash., when a 9-year-old boy, known to be allergic, died after he was given a peanut butter cookie during a field trip.

The discussion at Ridge Street started when a 5-year-old, so allergic she could die if she licked peanut butter from a fingertip, entered kindergarten. Her parents alerted school officials in advance.

“I approached them with my daughter’s medical history, and knowing what needed to be done to make her safe,” said the mother, who asked not to be identified to protect her daughter’s privacy. The girl couldn’t come into contact with peanut butter–or anything with peanut oil.

So the school stopped selling peanut butter sandwiches and other peanut products, set up a special “peanut-free table” covered with medical-exam paper in the lunchroom, and urged parents not to pack peanut-based lunches and snacks. If kindergartners came in with peanut lunches, they were sent to a separate room to eat.

Several parents objected, saying their kids were being pressured into giving up peanut butter entirely and they hadn’t had time to prepare.

Caryn Furst, for instance, said her daughter has a metabolic disorder, needs protein at every meal, and would eat only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“She had to have it,” Furst said. “A lot of parents are trying to be sensitive, but if you’ve got a child who wants peanut butter–that’s it.”

A truce, albeit uneasy, was struck. “We did a lot of education,” Kirshbaum said, “and we tried to compromise to the extent that nobody got hurt.”

Three million Americans are allergic to peanuts and/or tree nuts, and about 75 die each year from reactions that lead to anaphylactic shock. Thousands of kids now carry EpiPens–emergency doses of epinephrine in a spring-loaded injector–or store them with the school nurse.

Some other foods can kill, but nuts seem to be a prime danger. And it’s peanut butter, long a favorite with kids and the adults who pack their lunches, that has made the schools a front line.

“It’s the all-American sandwich,” said Carla Blaha of Ossining, N.Y., who founded a support group for parents after her son was diagnosed. “You tell people, ‘This can kill my son’ and still it doesn’t click that actually something like peanut butter can kill someone.”

Schools that haven’t had a dangerously allergic pupil can expect one soon.

“I think every school at some time will be affected,” said Joseph Rowe, principal of Stedwick Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md., who was confronted two years ago with a severely allergic student.

The incidence of school children with a peanut-allergy diagnosis was “barely on the radar” a decade ago, said Dr. Robert Goldman, a New York allergist and immunologist who specializes in pediatric cases.

“Now I’m seeing a tremendous number of cases,” Goldman said. “It seems like the incidence is really increasing. As to why, I don’t think anyone in the world could tell you for sure.”

Theories include that modern agriculture has changed the peanut itself, or that the human immune system is trying to find something to attack in an age of vaccination. Skeptics say children are simply being taken to doctors and diagnosed more often.

Goldman said almost no one outgrows the allergy; some are so sensitive they react to vapors from peanut shells. Dr. Clifford Bassett, an allergist at New York University Medical Center, said one-five-thousandth of a teaspoon of a food containing peanuts is enough to kill some people.

Some schools have declared themselves “peanut-free,” though most are striking a more moderate policy.

At the Chatsworth Avenue School in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Principal Jane Hand said it’s up to the parents of each allergic child to “give the school a list of appropriate food items that we can immediately give the other parents.”

“That way, the other parents don’t have to get into all the label-reading and worrying that they’re doing something that could hurt another child,” Hand said.

According to Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the nonprofit Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, school officials should focus their attention on educating students and parents about the facts of food allergies. Banning any product, she said, is an unrealistic approach that also stigmatizes allergic students, who often are taunted by their non-allergic classmates.

Munoz-Furlong, who founded the network in 1991 to help increase public awareness about food allergies, recommends separating students eating peanut products from those with allergies in the cafeteria, and telling students never to share food or utensils.

Links:

Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, 10400 Eaton Place, Ste. 107, Fairfax, VA 22030-2208; phone (800) 929-4040, web http://www.foodallergy.org.

“Managing Food Allergies in Schools,” http://www.foodallergy.com/