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Image: Susan Weissman and her 9-year-old son, Eden.
Courtesy Susan Weissman
Susan Weissman and her 9-year-old son, Eden, who is allergic to peanuts, milk and eggs. She says she doesn't want to be "that" parent, asking everyone to accomodate her child -- but she has asked other parents not to pack peanuts for lunch.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 7/24/2012 12:22:59 PM ET 2012-07-24T16:22:59

For Jennifer Buteau, shopping for the new school year is a bit more complicated than it is for most parents. Along with the notebooks, pens and pencils, Buteau is stocking up on a supply of Benadryl and EpiPens just in case her 8-year-old son accidentally comes in contact with an errant peanut that will leave him covered with hives and gasping for breath.

“It’s really hard for people to understand,” says the 40-year-old substitute teacher and mother of two from Sharon, Mass. “Just touching a bit of peanut can cause such a serious reaction. It’s nerve-wracking.”

Whether they’re prepping a kindergartner for her first day or getting an older child ready to start a new school, parents of kids with severe allergies have much more to worry about than the usual first-day jitters: Will school personnel take their child’s allergy seriously? Will their child turn down that unapproved cookie offered by a friend at snack time? Will whoever’s in charge know how to use the EpiPen in the event of a reaction?

For parents like Buteau, it all comes down to the right prep work – talking to teachers and the school nurse in advance, supplying everyone with the right medications, and making sure that every morsel her son will consume was prepared by her own hands.

Related: More Back to School stories from TODAY

This year Buteau is buying a special EpiPen pack for her son to carry around with him. “Every year has been a little different,” Buteau says. “This year the school is shifting responsibility for EpiPens from the teachers to the children. So I’ve got him a waist-pack kind of thing and a medic-alert bracelet.”

Buteau considers herself lucky among parents with allergic kids. Her school has its own nurse and because the principal also suffers from food allergies, she had no problem designating Buteau’s son’s classroom as a no-nut zone.

The good news for parents like Buteau is that kids with allergies have finally come up on the nation’s radar, says Dr. Maria Garcia-Lloret, a pediatric allergist and director of the pediatric food allergy clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Related: Adorable school lunches

“Fifteen years ago people were not paying attention,” Garcia-Lloret adds. “It’s now commonly accepted that between 6 and 8 percent of kids in school have a food allergy. That’s a lot – it means in a school with 1,000 students, there will be 60 to 80 with food allergies.”

Which makes it a lot easier for parents who need to bring their kids’ allergies to the school’s attention, says Garcia-Lloret.

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Susan Weissman, whose 9-year-old son Eden will be starting a new school in the fall, suggests parents make sure they brief all personnel – from teachers to coaches – about their child’s allergies.

“Remember to be polite,” says Weissman, a New York City mom who has written a memoir titled “Feeding Eden: The Trials and Triumphs of a Food Allergy Family.”

“Listen and be a role model for your child,” Weissman says. “Don’t just talk. Make sure you ask the teacher what is the best way to communicate from here on in when specific issues come up: Should it be email? By phone?”

Weissman’s son is allergic to a host of foods, including peanuts, milk and eggs. The food service at Eden’s old school had a no-nut policy. And with coaching from mom, Eden learned which foods were safe to eat –  and which ones to skip.

“He managed beautifully,” Weissman says. “Except for the time when he got milk spilled on him in the cafeteria. He reacted but it wasn’t a terrible reaction.”

Related: Living in a world of constant danger, one mom's allergy story

At Eden’s new school, kids will bring their lunches from home. Weissman already has asked the other parents to pack lunches that don’t contain peanuts. “I’m hopeful,” she says. “And, of course I’m a little nervous. You never want to be that parent. The one asking everyone to work around their kid. I only ask when I feel I must.”

Peanuts seem to be the one food that all food allergy parents want removed from the school grounds. Even when kids are allergic to many other foods, peanuts are the ones parents seem to be most worried about, often asking for the nuts to be banned from the school, or at least the classroom.

Garcia-Lloret, a pediatric allergist, advises parents to be more moderate in the demands they make of the school.

“If a parent comes to me and says she wants the school to be peanut-free, I say no,” she says. Fight instead for school personnel to be trained to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction, to have Benadryl available and to use an EpiPen, she says, adding that there is no evidence that banning peanuts will prevent reactions.

Related: Are allergy protections in schools going too far?

Beyond that, consider the fact that peanuts aren’t the only issue, Garcia-Lloret says.

“You can have a peanut-free classroom, but then what about the kid who is allergic to cashews or the kid with a deadly allergy to milk?” she asks. “And what about the child who is allergic to cat dander? Cat dander sticks to your clothes and can kick off allergic symptoms and even wheezing. Are we going to ban everyone from school who has a cat?”

Ultimately, demanding too much can lead to a backlash, Garcia-Lloret says. “Many times these extreme measures generate strong opposition,” she adds. “Even among the kids, you’ll hear someone saying, ‘Your mom made our classroom peanut-free.’ Resentment starts building up and sometimes you end up with a bullying problem.”

Related story: Skeptic parents flout no-peanut rules

The best approach, says Garcia-Lloret, is to focus on educating your own kid. “That’s the safest approach,” she says. “But I tell you, those kids know more about how to avoid peanut exposure than you do.”

That’s what’s worked for Theresa Alster and her daughter Julia, 14.

Julia had a severe reaction to red food dye when she was 8. “It looked like she was having a seizure,” says Alster, a writer from Campbell, Calif. “It was very unpleasant and made her very nervous.”

That nervousness pushed Julia to do a lot of the groundwork herself. “She just trains everybody,” Alster says. “She’s a natural communicator. She let the other kids know, and they told their parents. If someone sends cupcakes to school with pink frosting, the parents send something different for Julia.”

Julia checks all the labels on what she eats and shies away from anything that might have red dye in it. So, for us, Alster says, “It’s not that big of a deal.”

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Dogs sniff peanuts for allergic kids

  1. Closed captioning of: Dogs sniff peanuts for allergic kids

    >>> tylenol

    >>> this morning in "today's health," a surprising, new approach to peanut allergies . there are more than 3 million americans allergic to peanuts , and many of them are school-age children, which means a simple trip to the park or a slumber party could turn deadly. but now there is help from a unique program. "today's" west coast contributor maria menounos has more.

    >> good boy.

    >> reporter: just think of teddy as a cross between a seeing eye dog and a bomb-sniffing dog.

    >> all right, good boy! he's actually trained to hunt. we're just trying to get him to hunt what we want him to hunt for.

    >> reporter: but this pooch isn't on the hunt for explosives.

    >> see?

    >> reporter: he's part of a new breed of service dogs trained to sniff out peanuts and protect their owners from deadly allergies.

    >> the dog should be able to come in afterwards and let us know that this area is contaminated. show me. good boy.

    >> he'll be able to smell the area, detect what's in that room and let the child know where they can and can't play. this is teddy.

    >> reporter: sherry maris founded the network to train dogs like teddy after a peanut-sniffing dog helped save her daughter's life. despite a cost of $10,000, she placed her first four dogs with families this fall. here in colorado, there are seven more dogs like ranger here in training and many more puppies on the way. in spite of the cost, over 2,000 families have asked about getting an allergy alert dog. derek and jody gonzalez have spent seven years building a peanut-free bubble around their son logan .

    >> just for him to be a normal kid to do normal things, go to kids' birthday parties. those aren't options for him.

    >> reporter: doctors say his allergy is the worst they've ever seen, so severe that just the smell of peanuts on a teacher's breath once sent him to the emergency room .

    >> we just thought that this was going to be something that we were going to have to deal with for the rest of our life, that logan would never get a tool that helped him like this.

    >> reporter: that tool's name is roxy.

    >> hi, girl.

    >> reporter: the residents of logan 's small town raised almost $20,000 for the year-old australian labradoodle.

    >> she's kissing you all over!

    >> reporter: she'll follow logan everywhere he goes, letting him know any time peanuts are nearby. a new best friend for logan , making the idea of a normal life not seem so far-fetched after all. for "today," maria menounos , nbc news, monument, colorado.

    >> and sherry is the founder of angel service dogs here with her daughter riley and her dog rocco . good morning to all of you.

    >> good morning. thanks for having us.

    >> as we just saw, these are dogs that can change children's lives, families' lives. tell us more about how angel service dogs came about.

    >> i was actually watching an nbc program where they had the beagle brigade out and they were showing how they sniff luggage in airports, and i thought, if a dog can find a pineapple, why can't it find peanuts and protect my child?

    >> fantastic.

    >> and we grew from there.

    >> riley, you have a peanut allergy . i know that's got to be tough, but how have dogs like rocco saved your lives and other children's lives? how has it changed what you get to do every day?

    >> well, it's not really changed my life, he's changed other children's lives, too.

    >> it makes you safer, right? you know places you can go and where you can't go, right?

    >> yeah, i definitely do.

    >> if somebody is looking into getting an allergy dog, a peanut allergy dog, it's not an easy process. what do they have to go through? what can they expect?

    >> when they apply online at ang angelservicedogs.com, you have to have doctor's proof of your allergy. we want to be with your aller gist in making this decision, and i want to know that having the dog in your life won't cause additional harm or hurt your asthma, because we'll help the kids eventually through educating people, like doing segments like this, letting people know these allergies exist.

    >> and it's important to make the point that this is not a cure, but this is certainly adding extra protection for children.

    >> absolutely not. one of the important things about rocco is in this pack he has his emergency medication, like his injector, benadryl, you know, the things that would save my daughter's life if she actually needed that with an attack.

    >> that's important. now to hoda with a demonstration.

    >> amy, we'll do a show and tell. trainer chris jack is here with your dog.

    >> binelli.

    >> how do you know when the dog smells peanuts ? what sign does he give?

    >> a certain change in behavior that the owner can detect. each dog has a different change we're looking for.

    >> and do these dogs just sniff out peanuts ? because kids can be allergic to all kinds of things that can be deadly.

    >> yes.

    >> so, it's $10,000 if you want the dog.

    >> correct.

    >> now you're going to give us a demonstration. so, somewhere around us there are peanuts hidden.

    >> very dangerous peanuts , yes.

    >> let's see you do your thing.

    >> come on. come on. binelli. good girl! come on. over here. check here. check here. good girl. check. change of behavior, excessive sniffing, and she'll give a response.

    >> sit. that means there are peanuts there.

    >> good girl! there are peanuts there. good girl. she got her own reward.

    >> you would take this dog to restaurants, to malls, to schools? where would you be able to take your dog?

    >> absolutely. where the families want to go with their child.

    >> is it like a seeing eye dog in a way that they would be permitted in restaurants?

    >> absolutely, yes, it is.

    >> chris, thank you. good work. nice to see you.

    >>> coming up, we'll show you how you can have some fashion accessories for $50 or

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