Kids Sunburned at School: Who’s to Blame?

Violet and Zoe Michener came home from school sporting these severe sunburns.

It was raining when her children left for school on Tuesday, so Jesse Michener did not slather them in sunscreen, even though she knew they’d be outdoors for field day later that afternoon. But the sun came out around noon and, when the kids came home, two of them were so severely sunburned that they had to go to the hospital.

“We’ve never done a field day at the school before,” Michener told Yahoo! Shine in an interview on Thursday. “They were outside for over five hours.”

A freelance photographer, she posted pictures and described her daughter’s sunburns on her blog. “Two of my three children experienced significant sunburns. Like, hurts-to-look-at burns,” Michener wrote. “Violet is starting to blister on her face.” Both Violet, 11, and her sister, Zoe, 9, “have headaches, chills and pain” and had to stay home from school the next day. (Her youngest daughter, 7-year-old Eleanor, was also sunburned, but not badly.) The girls did not stay overnight at the hospital, and Michener said they are being treated at home with cool baths and over-the-counter pain medications.

To make matters worse, Zoe, has a form of Albinism — and teachers and staff at Point Defiance Elementary School were aware of her extreme sensitivity to the sun. She even has a written agreement — a 504 plan — with the school because of it. And yet, teachers refused to send the girls indoors or allow them to apply sunscreen themselves, according to her mom.

“My children indicated that several adults commented on their burns at school, including staff and other parents,” Michener wrote on her blog. “One of my children remarked that their teacher used sunscreen in her presence and that it was ‘just for her.’ So, is this an issue of passive, inactive supervision? Where is the collective awareness for student safety?”

Tacoma Public School district spokesman Dan Voelpel told Yahoo! Shine that the school district’s sunscreen policy — which forbids teachers from applying sunscreen to students, and only allows students to apply it to their own bodies if they have a doctor’s note authorizing it — is based on a statewide law.

“Our policy follows the state law which allows district to establish the rules for how medications, both over-the-counter and prescription medication, is handled in the school,” he said. “Our policy is that any of that medication requires a doctor’s order for kids to take it at school. This is really to protect other students who could be exposed to various medications that they could be allergic to.” The federal Food and Drug Administration considers sunscreen to be an over-the-counter medication.

While Michener says that she takes full responsibility for not making them put on sunscreen before bringing them to school that day — none of her kids have ever come home from school with sunburns before, she notes. She also points out that teachers had other options besides breaking the law: They could have sent the girls indoors when they noticed the burns getting bad, or called Michener and asked her to come to school and put sunscreen on them herself. (The FDA suggests that sunscreen be reapplied every two hours.)

“Something as simple as a sun hat might seem to bypass the prescription issue to some extent,” she wrote. “Alas, hats are not allowed at school, even on field day.”

“It was an exceptional day, with exceptional inability to serve these kids,” she told Yahoo! Shine.

Michener is asking the school district to consider crafting a more “parent-friendly” policy on sunscreens, one that would allow parents to sign a waiver giving teachers permission to apply sunscreen while at school, or one that would allow teachers to act in their students’ best interests. Voelpel told Yahoo! Shine that there currently is not a procedure in place for parents who have trouble getting a doctor’s note, but “We periodically review our policies as situations change,” he said. “I can’t say whether this one will be revised based on this case.”

Michener says that her daughters’ sunburns are really part of a larger problem.

“My biggest beef is that teachers are not able to make good decisions about kids safety,” she said. “Fear of litigation is preventing us from living our lives and taking care of our kids.”

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