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Gluten-Free Safety at School

Approximately 1 out of every 300 children in the United States is affected by celiac disease. However, if a child has a parent or sibling with the disease, their likelihood of being affected rises significantly to 1 in every ten children. An autoimmune disorder that prevents proper digestion and absorption of nutrients in foods containing gluten, including wheat, barley, and rye, living with celiac disease can greatly impact a child's health and daily life, especially when navigating school. It's vital for schools to be understanding of these challenges and to work with students and their families to ensure they have a safe and inclusive learning environment. 

Learning Disruptions

Learning disruptions can occur in students with celiac disease as a result of physical symptoms they may experience. It's worth noting that while celiac disease is commonly associated with digestive issues, only around 20-30% of children with celiac disease experience stomach-related symptoms. In fact, over 250 symptoms associated with celiac disease, ranging from mild discomfort to severe pain, can include bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, and headaches. When symptoms occur, students may find it difficult to concentrate, participate in class, or complete assignments. In some cases, they may need to miss school altogether if their symptoms are particularly severe. 

Bullying and Discrimination

Bullying can have a particularly negative impact on students with celiac disease. Not only can it exacerbate the emotional distress they may already be feeling as a result of their condition, but it can also make it more difficult for them to manage their symptoms. Moreover, even though awareness about celiac disease and its debilitating effects has grown considerably in recent years, so has skepticism due to the rise in gluten-free living for other health or wellness reasons.  

Exclusion and Isolation

In addition to the physical symptoms, students with celiac disease may also experience emotional distress due to their condition. They may feel isolated or excluded from social activities that involve food, leading more than 49% of children with celiac disease to experience anxiety or other mental health challenges. This emotional burden can also affect their academic performance, as they may struggle to focus on their studies when they feel overwhelmed, worried, or stressed. 

School Support & Management Plan

The only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet. Even trace amounts of gluten can harm the small intestine's villi and interfere with nutrient absorption into the bloodstream, causing acute symptoms and potentially leading to life-threatening health outcomes. Therefore, schools must provide resources and accommodations that support students with celiac disease. One of the most important ways is by providing gluten-free options for school snacks, lunches, and school-sponsored activities. A student with celiac disease should have a 504 Accommodations and/or Celiac Disease Management Plan in place that includes symptoms, required care, and necessary support. To ensure that staff are up-to-date with the Celiac Disease Management Plan, faculty, staff, and food service personnel should receive in-depth training on celiac disease, a gluten-free diet, and other risks for gluten exposure in the school setting, including certain types of clays and art supplies like paper mache. It's also essential to promote a supportive and inclusive learning environment for students with celiac disease and to be alert for teasing and bullying of students, particularly when food is present. Providing educational materials and serving as a resource for managing celiac disease for children, families, and community members can help to raise awareness and prevent these issues.

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