Peanut allergy benches Concord boy from basketball camp

A little boy in Concord was told he could not go to a summer camp, all because he is allergic to peanuts.
February 20, 2014 7:56:27 PM PST
A little boy in Concord was told he could not go to a summer camp, all because he is allergic to peanuts.

Millions of children have food allergies and as parents begin looking for summer camps, 7 On Your Side's Michael Finney investigated.

Six-year-old Campbell Popovich plays with bubbles, bounces on a trampoline and smashes a t-ball. It isn't obvious he has a life-threatening condition. Campbell is severely allergic to peanuts. If he ate one he could break out in hives, or worse.

"And his lungs would close off, he wouldn't be able to breathe and he could potentially die from that," said Campbell's father Mark Popovich.

His parents scrutinize food labels and he carries nut-free foods wherever he goes.

Campbell also knows how to use a life-saving EpiPen. So far he hasn't needed one, but he recently faced a different problem.

"I brought him to camp on the first day and brought his EpiPen," said Campbell's mother Alison.

Alison Popovich signed Campbell up for a week of basketball at an East Bay sports camp in Walnut Creek. She asked a counselor to store his EpiPen. And then, she got the email. Campbell was not welcome back to camp.

In the email Camp Director Chris Murrell wrote: "If Campbell's condition is as serious as it appears to be, we will not be able to continue enjoying him in our camps. If (the allergy) is not life threatening but serious the call to continue would be yours."

Alison responded that yes, [the peanut allergy] was potentially life-threatening. But Campbell had brought his own food and a staff member was trained to use an EpiPen.

Murrell fired back:

"It would not matter to me in the least that every one of my staff were certified and practicing ER doctors. I would never accept the responsibility of bringing a child whose life could be threatened so easily through contact with 40 other children? You feel it is your call to make to place not only your son's life in danger, but the well-being of my staff and 40 other kids who may...witness a child dying in front of their eyes?"

"I took that as the camp director's decision that he could not come back," said Alison Popovich.

Campbell was devastated

"He felt like he did something wrong and he didn't do anything. He just wanted to go and play," said Mark Popovich.

The family filed a complaint with the United States Department of Justice, claiming the camp discriminated against Campbell because of a disability. The case is still under review.

"In my view it would be unlawful for a day camp, that's open to the public, to prohibit a person with a severe peanut allergy from participating," said Disability Rights California Deputy Director, Andrew Mudryk.

Disability Rights California has a federal mandate to advocate for the disabled.

Mudryk says there are no specific laws requiring summer camps to accept children with food allergies. However, the Justice Department has determined severe food allergies are a disability. And, like other businesses, summer camps must accommodate the disabled unless it would require a fundamental alteration in their programs.

"If a young person with a peanut allergy needs a medication, in the case he encounters a peanut, that the camp would be obligated to provide that," said Mudryk.

Alison contacted 7 On Your Side who contacted Murrell, the camp director. He declined several requests for an interview. However, in several long emails he said he never excluded the boy. He said it was the mother's choice to remove him by saying the allergy was life-threatening.

Murrell said: "The message to Ms. Popovich was clearly and unmistakably her call to make? Complete authority was given to her for Campbell to attend and she chose not to? (The camp) never refused to perform nor were we requested to perform any reasonable or readily achievable modifications to allow Campbell to attend camp."

Murrell also said Campbell's mother signed a standard release form which states the camp does not have staff trained for special needs.

Alison said she gave the EpiPen to a trained staff member but that account could not be confirmed.

"He said I could not join camp anymore and it made me sad," said Campbell.

"It's pretty extreme to tell a kid with allergies that he can't go have fun at a basketball camp," said Alison Popovich.


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