For many parents, school is a place where they can trust that teachers and administrators will keep their children safe. But for Elm City parent Nijija-Ife Waters, that has never been a reality.
At an Oct. 22 Board of Education meeting, Waters, a parent of a child with severe food allergies, announced that she plans to file a lawsuit against the New Haven School Board for violating Title III of the American Disabilities Act — a federal law that broadly prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. Title III in particular imposes accessibility requirements on “public accommodations” such as school buildings. Waters, an active parent in the community, has repeatedly recommended that the board update its policies and regulations regarding student health services over the past two years. She is now escalating her actions to force education officials to reevaluate these policies.
“You guys are not going to be satisfied until we lose a child,” Waters said during the public comment section of the Oct. 22 board meeting. “How many kids have to be affected by the incompetence of your employees?”
“I can’t explain why it is not important to the district to be updated with their policies,” Waters told the News. “I don’t understand from the state point of view, whose job it is to find out whether the district is adhering to policy. That’s discrimination of Title III.”
Waters has addressed this issue with the board over the past several years, since her own child received the wrong allergy medication from school nurses in 2016. She regularly attends meetings and is currently vice president of the Citywide Parent Team, an organization that helps connect parents to resources within the public school system.
The board did update its food allergy policy in 2017 due to parent advocacy efforts. In the most recent document on its website published on April 26, 2017, the board said that it will follow “guidelines developed and promulgated by the Connecticut Department of Public Health and Department of Education,” which includes training for personnel, procedures for responding to life-threatening allergic reactions and individualized plans for students with allergies. They also promised to formulate the Districtwide Food Allergy Management Plan, specific to New Haven.
The board has maintained that it is working to update policy and that the school system’s workers meet all the necessary guidelines.
However, Waters and other parents have asserted that the board is not meeting the guidelines they set forth in the April 2017 document and that no Districtwide Management Plan has been released.
Waters told the News that she does not think continuing to talk with the board will lead to concrete policy changes.
“What kind of leadership do we have?” she said. “Good leadership is to follow through, not just to dictate to someone that something should be done.”
In April, a first year at the Engineering and Science University Magnet School had an allergic reaction to a chocolate bar containing peanuts, which was given to him by an assistant principal. The New Haven Independent reported that the student’s mother, Tahania Cunningham, was not informed that an administrator had given the bar to her son until over a month later. The incident came on the heels of another allergic reaction, in which a district teacher gave a student an apple, causing a reaction and sparking parent outrage.
Board of Education President Darnell Goldson told the News that the board is continuing to reevaluate its policies. In addition, it has hired experts from the Connecticut Associations of Boards of Education to assist in its ongoing update to its guidelines. However, he told the News he was unaware whether the regulations were up-to-date with American Disability Act regulations.
Waters filed an Office of Civil Rights complaint in 2016, but after this complaint did not result in action against the board, she decided to take the issue to civil court. She has not begun the formal process of filing the complaint, so the board does not currently know the full extent of her claims.
“They are not respecting our children and their lives, and so now a parent has to be bold enough and say you know what, I am not going to keep talking to you guys, Waters said.
The American Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.
Carolyn Sacco | firstname.lastname@example.org .