Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Spokane

School knew of boy's allergy
Statement expected today in 9-year-old's death during field trip

Virginia de Leon
Staff writer

Nathan Walters' peanut allergy wasn't a secret.

Teachers and staffers at Logan Elementary School knew. So did several of his fellow third-graders.

Why the 9-year-old received a sack lunch full of peanut products isn't clear to officials at Spokane School District 81. Nor are they sure what happened after Walters ate a peanut butter cookie during a field trip to Riddle Farm near Green Bluff.

Walters died Friday afternoon at Holy Family Hospital -- roughly four hours after lu
nch time.

An autopsy was scheduled Monday, but results were not released.

Also Monday, district officials started interviewing the two teachers and at least six adult chaperones who had accompanied the 50 students. They intend to release a public statement today.

"We just don't know anything right now," District 81 superintendent Gary Livingston said Monday afternoon. "Everyone was so distraught when it happened."

The sack lunch, provided by the school, contained a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a peanut butter cookie and trail mix with mixed nuts, officials said. It also included an apple and carrots.

The lunches were passed out by chaperones, said Rich Van Scoik, one of the chaperones for the two third-grade classes. And to his knowledge, none were told of Walters' severe allergy to nuts.

Walters gave away the sandwich and trail mix, said his classmate, Andrew Clemens.

But he ate the cookie, which several people said looked like a sugar cookie, said Terren Roloff, District 81's community relations director.

The boy became sick soon after.

Walters wasn't treated immediately for his illness and stayed in the bus while the rest of the children toured the farm, Van Scoik said.

When the kids returned to the bus at 2 p.m., Van Scoik saw adults helping the boy out of the bus. Walters took a few steps, keeled over and had dry heaves, Van Scoik said.

He saw one of the chaperones drive away with Walters in a private vehicle. It was shortly after 2 p.m.

"If that was my son, I'd want to know why he didn't go to the hospital right away," said Van Scoik, who had yet to be interviewed by the school district Monday evening.

Peanuts are the leading cause of severe food allergic reactions, according to the Food Allergy Network. The potentially fatal reactions affect approximately 3 million Americans -- roughly 1 percent of the population.

About 125 people die each year from food allergies, most of them from peanut allergy, according to the Centers for Peanut Allergy Awareness.

Anaphylactic shock is a severe allergic reaction, with itchiness as its first sign. The symptoms range from tingling of the mouth and swelling of the throat to vomiting, wheezing, hives and diarrhea. Symptoms typically appear within minutes to two hours after the person has eaten the food, according to The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

"Time is of the essence," according to the Lung Association. "Death may occur within minutes."

A child suffering from anaphylaxis isn't hard to recognize, said Traci Arney, a nurse practitioner for Dr. Michael McCarthy, a local specialist in pediatric pulmonology, allergy and immunology.

"They have a tough time breathing, their blood pressure drops, which makes them weak and their level of consciousness decreases," she said. "They look very sick."

Kids with peanut allergies often wear a medic alert bracelet and carry an Epipen auto injector, she said. To counteract the anaphylactic shock, the injector contains epinephrine, or adrenaline.

An Epipen, along with a Food Allergy Plan, was in the school bus, Roloff said. But officials don't know if the Epipen was used.

Spokane Public Schools doesn't keep districtwide statistics on the number of students with peanut allergies, Roloff said. Each school keeps track of its own students and Walters was among a few at several schools.

Parents of 9-year-old Joey Cozza asked Mullan Road Elementary to ban all peanut products from the cafeteria menu in 1998. Joey is severely allergic, said his mother, Megan Cozza. Just touching peanuts gives him hives.

But Joey, who's also developmentally delayed, doesn't have the ability to monitor himself. Two and a half years ago, he grabbed a cookie containing peanuts from a teacher's lunch tray and took a bite.

Joey threw up, Megan Cozza said, but people at school thought he had the flu. He began to sneeze and wheeze nonstop and didn't get better until the doctor gave him a shot of epinephrine.

The Cozzas' concern for their son's safety prompted the school to train its staff in giving the emergency shots used to treat allergies. Although Mullan Road Elementary didn't ban peanuts, cafeteria workers began highlighting menu items that contain peanuts.

Since then, District 81 has purchased training videos and provided allergy information for all its staff. Parents who have children with food allergies are asked to contact the school. To make menu modifications or changes for children, parents need a note from the doctor.

The day Walters died, peanut butter sandwiches were on the lunch menu at District 81 schools. But because of his allergy, he would've eaten a tuna fish or cheese sandwich, Roloff said. The cafeteria wouldn't have served him a peanut butter sandwich.

"It's better to do too much than too little," Megan Cozza said. "This isn't an inconvenience issue, it's a life-or-death issue."

Walters' death brought six school district counselors to Logan Elementary Monday to talk to students, staff and parents. His teacher was at school for only a few minutes, said 9-year-old Clemens, and "he was very, very sad."

So were his classmates, who spent several hours asking about Walters and recalling the moments they spent with him.

Walters was good at math, Clemens said. He told good jokes. The two would jump on the trampoline, climb on the monkey bars and make puzzles together.

District officials said he attended Roosevelt Elementary from January 2000 to January 2001. Then he moved to Logan Elementary, a school of about 415 students, where 75 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

Walters, whose parents are divorced, lived with his father in Spokane. He told Clemens that his mother was in Salt Lake City.

Logan Elementary principal Mallory Thomas sent a letter to parents informing them about Walters' death and the crisis team.

"His death is sad for the whole Logan community," said Maureen Schneider, coordinator of elementary school services. "The students talked about how much they enjoyed having him in class."

Virginia de Leon can be reached at (509) 459-5312 or by e-mail at virginiad@spokesman.com.


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