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Schools have been taking precautions to help keep kids safe, but sometimes the rules designed to protect children can cause them harm instead. When schools pay more attention to following the rule than common sense, one can only assume it’s to protect the school board from legal action. Recent examples have shown that a one-size-fits-all rule covering medications at school clearly doesn’t work for students with medical conditions.
Jesse Michener, a mother in Tacoma, Washington, sent her daughters Zoe, 9, and Violet, 11, to school without sunscreen on a cloudy day. The skies cleared up for the afternoon’s school-wide Olympics, so the girls played outside for five hours. While five hours of unprotected sun exposure is dangerous for any skin, it was especially dangerous for the Micheners, because Violet has a mild form of albinism (of which the school was aware).
The girls were so severely sunburned that Jesse Michener took her daughters to the hospital, where they were given painkillers, water, salves and orders to rest. Zoe admitted she cried about her sunburn, which undoubtedly left her in a lot of pain. While there was sunscreen available at the school, the girls were not allowed to apply it without a doctor’s note.
Sunscreen is treated like a drug in Washington schools. Dan Voepel, a Tacoma School District spokesman, explained, “Because so many additives in lotions and sunscreens cause allergic reaction in children, you really have to monitor that.” Jeff Ashley, a dermatologist from California and leader of advocacy group Sun Safety for Kids, says that “sunscreen allergies are no more common that allergies to soap. Are schools going to take soap out of their bathrooms?”
Unlike soap, sunscreens are controlled by the FDA as an over-the-counter drug, and as such, they are treated like medications under Washington’s state laws. Washington is far from the only state regulating the use of sunscreen in school, California is the only state where students can apply sunscreen without a doctor’s note. The only medication that can be carried in most schools is an inhaler for students with asthma. School rules prevent other sun protection: USA Today points out that most schools, including the Micheners’ school, have banned hats for fear of gang affiliation (my elementary school claimed the hat ban was to help identify intruders). Some schools in California, perhaps in response to being so sunny, have come up with a solution to the hat rule: students were issued identical sun-protection hats that can only be worn outside.
Even if sunscreen can be applied, teachers are not allowed to help apply it. Last year in Maryland, fear over inappropriate touching made the state issue a policy that said no summer camp counselor could assist children in applying sunscreen. The Washington Post reports that the policy was repealed only three weeks later and counselors could apply children’s sunscreen if parents signed a permission slip.
Sunscreen isn’t the only over-the-counter item that schools have kept from children with health issues. Lisa Belkin, a writer for The New York Times’ Motherlode section, told the story of her son’s migraines and the school’s policy on drugs back in 2009. His three-day migraines could be prevented if he took two Tylenol and two Advil tablets at the same time as soon as he got the first warning sign. Unfortunately, his school has a policy of not allowing children to carry any medication with them, so when he recognized a warning sign, he would have to be excused from class, get to the school nurse, and have the nurse call his mother to get permission to take the medication, despite the many permission notes she had sent in the past.
This process could take so long that it would be too late to prevent a migraine by the time the nurse dispensed the medication from its locked cabinet. To counteract this, Belkin would often slip her son a few pills to keep in his pocket and take discreetly if needed. This could have gotten him into big trouble like a girl in Tucson, Arizona. Savanna Redding, an eighth-grade honors student at the time, was accused of giving another student ibuprofen (Advil). When a search of Redding’s backpack came up empty, the girl was strip-searched. The Supreme Court decided in 2009 that the search was illegal.
While all of these measures seem counter-productive, they are part of a zero-tolerance drug policy. Too many exceptions could make a rule appear flimsy. Schools are also trying to avoid any accusations of wrongdoing by teachers and preventing lawsuits. A quick Google search of “parents sue school” will show you plenty of examples of how many families are ready to take legal action, even if it was over punishments outlined in a school’s cheating policy. If a child were to suffer any adverse effects to a drug administered by a school official, parents would likely file a lawsuit against the school. Even so, hopefully the other 49 states will look to California’s sun protection policies and revise their own.