- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

Derek Cope was 5 when he almost died after accidentally sipping milk from another child's cup at school.

His mother still tears up six years later when she recalls the ride to the hospital, running red lights, as her son gasped for breath, a rash erupted on his body and he went into anaphylactic shock.

"They had to keep him in the ER that night and give him drug after drug so he could be coherent again," April Walker Cope said.

He survived after 12 stressful hours in the hospital, but Mrs. Cope said it was the beginning of a long battle with the school system for her son's life.

Derek, 11, was born with a rare, but severe and potentially fatal allergy to milk and beef. Mrs. Cope and her husband, David, keep no milk or dairy products at home. They never order home-delivered pizza or eat out.

But there are few safeguards at schools for children who are allergic to milk, even though it is known to cause allergic reactions.

Among children in the United States, 2.5 percent have milk allergies and, although most outgrow it by the time they are 3 or 4, others have it for life, according to Traci Tavares, spokeswoman for Food Allergies and Anaphylaxis.

"There are children who die every year of milk allergies, and I don't want my son to fall sick because someone wasn't careful," said Mrs. Cope, who had worked out a plan to keep Derek's elementary classroom free of dairy products.

The plan is based on the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects the rights of persons with disabilities in programs that receive federal aid.

But last fall when Derek moved to Meade Middle School, his parents were shocked when they found that students were bringing food into Derek's classroom during a break. They also found out that the plan did not carry over to his middle school.

After four months of petitioning the school board, the Copes won a small, significant victory when Anne Arundel schools' Interim Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson this month asked that food be kept out of Derek's class.

Now, the couple wants the county to adopt a policy that will make classrooms safer places for all children with allergies.

Some local school districts, such as Montgomery and Fairfax counties, say they already have guidelines to protect children with food allergies, although in most cases they are peanut allergies.

Derek's parents said they reached agreement with Meade Middle School in October that teachers would clean up after the children had eaten in class.

But sometimes the children cleaned up and were not thorough, Mrs. Cope said. For four months, Derek watched anxiously when children spilt food in class or emptied milk down water fountains. Even touching a doorknob where a child had left traces of ice cream could trigger his symptoms.

"I would just sit at my place and make sure I did not see or touch any food. I was as careful as I could be," said Derek.

He was under tremendous stress and fell sick more often. "He had a lot more headaches and stomach aches and was not able to sleep," Mrs. Cope said. At least twice late last year he had allergic reactions.

His worried parents kept Derek out of school for a week after the Christmas break and considered home schooling. "He likes people and wants to be around others. He feels the interaction … helps him learn more," said Mrs. Cope.

The family said a load was lifted off their shoulders when they learned that food would no longer be allowed in Derek's classroom.

Meade Principal Jacques Smith said the move did not cause any inconvenience because the school had made accommodations for other students to eat in the cafeteria.

But the fight is not over yet for the Cope family. The school system is setting up a committee to look into how to deal with children with severe allergies. "Lots of parents don't know about the law because schools don't tell them. That way it is easier for them to not do anything," Mrs. Cope said.

Derek said his life is a little easier for now. "It is less stressful. But there are some people who have been mad at me and who don't like me because they can't eat lunch in class because of me," he said.

The family will continue to exercise extreme care. There is no known cure for allergies. Derek can never can buy a lunch at school and has never tasted ice cream or cheese. He rarely goes to parties, except those at the homes of very close friends who know about his allergy and avoid serving dairy products. He carries a syringe of epinephrine, which provides temporary relief for an allergic reaction, and wears a medallion inscribed with his doctor's phone number.

"Every time we buy something, I read the label, then Derek reads the label and finally my wife reads it," Mr. Cope said.

They live on a farm, but have never kept a cow. His parents work hard to protect him, like the time his mother baked three huge milk-free cakes for 350 children and parents at her son's fifth-grade graduation party.

"He is doing self-preservation here," Mrs. Cope said.

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