In Your Backyard: On Diabetes and Disabilities Law
by Maura Casey • Thursday, January 20, 2000 • SpeakOut.com
The most recent precedent set in the Americans with Disabilities Act occurred Jan. 4 in East Haddam, Conn. In a settlement of a case that never should have gone to court, the East Haddam school district conceded that Katelyn Cross, an 11-year-old diabetic, should have the right to give herself a routine glucose test at her desk without having to visit the school nurse for such a purpose.
Duh. The case proves that lawyers never will run out of business as long as adults -- in this case, school administrators -- refuse to act with a grain of common sense.
No lancets allowed
A few weeks before Katelyn began first grade, doctors said she had diabetes. They recommended that she test her glucose levels several times a day.
Diabetes and grade school; do they mix?
Without such monitoring -- and adjustment if needed by eating, drinking or taking glucose tablets -- diabetics can become ill. The test is a simple medical procedure that involves pricking a finger with a lancet, putting a tiny portion of blood onto a testing device that determines whether one's glucose level is within a proper range.Katelyn's mother, Doreen Cross, said her daughter's first-grade teacher suggested that Katelyn administer the test herself, at her desk, to ensure that the little girl did not feel stigmatized by trips to the school nurse's office. The Crosses thought it was a good idea, and so did Katelyn's doctors.
But school nurse Jane Sexauer and principal Linda Cherry thought it was an awful idea. They insisted that Katelyn go to the nurse's office at least once a day to check her glucose level.
According to the parents and their lawyer, Alyce Alfano, the school said that if Katelyn gave herself the test, "blood-borne pathogens" somehow could get loose in the classroom, endangering the other children. Despite the best attempts of Katelyn's doctors to reassure school officials, school officials forbade Katelyn from giving herself the test.
If school officials sound like control freaks, they had a lot of company. The school board formulated a policy specifically saying that only the school nurse could do glucose testing in school. The superintendent, who is no longer with the school system, backed the policy.
A last-resort lawsuit
Katelyn got so upset about the issue in second grade that her mother came to school every day at noon for the next three years to give her daughter the test and spare her the tension of going to the nurse. Mrs. Cross, who had planned to return to work once her daughter began school, delayed those plans, and the family hired an attorney.
They sued the school district, charging that the school discriminated against Katelyn, treating her differently because she is diabetic. That, they charged, violates the ADA, the law that bans discrimination against Americans with disabilities.
The family did not seek monetary damages. What they really wanted was for the court to issue a declaratory judgment on the question. "In some ways, it made it more difficult," said attorney Alfano. "You can always negotiate over money."
Mrs. Cross said the family did everything it could to find a compromise. Maybe so. The nurse quit her job last year, principal Cross refused to comment on the case, and the current school superintendent would not return repeated phone calls requesting an interview.
What is clear is that one week before the trial was to begin, the school district settled with the Crosses, conceding Katelyn's right to give herself her own glucose test and agreeing to pay the family's legal fees.
A big deal over nothing
In one way, it is a moot point; Katelyn does not attend East Haddam Elementary School anymore. The court settlement counts as one more precedent for a broad law that, in the 10 years since it passed, has been defined by such legal actions.
Yet from the beginning the case had the hallmarks of a penny-ante power struggle that never should have gotten to a legal stage. Although school policies vary, schools across New England allow students to give themselves such tests. Vermont has a policy that favors allowing students to give themselves glucose tests wherever they feel most comfortable.
Empowering a little girl to take as much control of her own chronic illness as she can should not threaten anyone. Rather, it is good policy and the hallmark of caring adults.
Katelyn, who says she can give herself a glucose test while taking notes, is in a parochial school now that permits her to test herself at her desk. It is not a big deal. It never should have been.
Maura Casey is the associate editorial-page editor of
The Day in New London, Conn., and a former social worker.