Diabetes Discrimination in Schools

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we’ve covered controversies in the past concerning who should be allowed to give insulin in schools — which have almost always resulted in a range of trained school personnel, not just school nurses, being allowed to give injections. Since many schools don’t have nurses, this arrangement no doubt allows many younger children with diabetes to get the care they need without summoning a parent to the school. But as a recent article makes clear, many schools — both public and private — aren’t providing any help to children with diabetes. And some even bar them from participating in school activities, or from attending the school altogether.

The article, published last week in The New York Times, describes the ordeals of several students with Type 1 diabetes and their parents. In one case, a mother in Seattle was told that her five-year-old son couldn’t attend kindergarten at the neighborhood public school because of his diabetes, nor was he welcome at another private school. When a different private school did accept him, it offered no help with his diabetes management and insisted that a parent always be present for blood glucose checks and insulin injections.

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In another case, a 12-year-old boy in Birmingham, Alabama, was forced to transfer to a different, farther-away school midway through the year when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. His mother had to leave work every day to pick him up, since the distance was too far for him to walk and no bus was provided. In yet another case, a four-year-old girl in a Head Start program in Philadelphia was forced to drop out of the program when she was diagnosed with diabetes. Both of these cases were eventually resolved through legal action, with nurses provided at the school districts’ expense. This outcome was possible because federal law prohibits discriminating based on disability (a category that includes chronic diseases like diabetes) in both public and nonreligious private schools, and requires schools to make reasonable accommodations for students’ disabilities.

But many schools, both public and private, as well as many parents are unaware of what the law requires schools to do. In 2013, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that the State of Alabama practiced widespread discrimination against students with diabetes in public schools, often forcing them to attend different schools from their siblings and excluding them from field trips and sports teams. Legal action, as well as a 2014 state law, mostly eliminated these practices in Alabama, but it’s possible that exclusion of children with diabetes still happens routinely in other states where federal scrutiny hasn’t been as intense.

What’s your reaction to these stories — are you surprised that children with diabetes have been treated this way? Have you personally experienced similar treatment? If you have a child with diabetes in school, do you trust the school to keep your child healthy? If not, what steps have you taken to safeguard your child’s health? Should schools have to provide nurses if parents request them due to a child’s medical condition? Is it ever appropriate to exclude a child with diabetes from certain activities? Leave a comment below!