When “Zero Tolerance” Is Deadly

In his testimony before Congress advocating for the legalization of medicinal marijuana, National Review senior editor Richard Brookhiser argued that “the law disgraces itself when it harasses the sick.” How much more so when a school’s absurd “zero tolerance” drugs policy prevents a child with asthma from reaching his life-saving inhaler in time:

Ryan Gibbons was only 12 years old when he died from a severe asthma attack during recess at school. He would have simply reached for the prescription inhaler that he always carried with him, but his school took it away and locked it in the principal’s office.

As Ryan gasped for air, his friends picked him up and carried him to the office where his inhaler was held. But they couldn’t get there in time. Ryan passed out before they reached his potentially life-saving medicine. He never recovered. The date was Oct. 9, 2012.

The tragedy took place at Elgin County School in Straffordville, Ontario, Canada. Now Ryan’s grieving mom, Sarah Gibbons, is leading a campaign to get schools to change their senseless policy of keeping essential inhalers away from asthmatic children — by law.

The bill that she wants lawmakers to pass is dubbed “Ryan’s Law,” in honor of her son’s memory. The proposed law would force schools to let kids who have a doctor’s okay carry inhalers in school, in a pocket or backpack.

It’s too often the case that would-be laws named after deceased children are hastily conceived with little thought given to unintended consequences, but here it is the policy that the law seeks to overturn that was implemented without enough forethought. Schools certainly have a legitimate interest in keeping even legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco off its premises and preventing potentially-harmful prescription drugs from falling into the wrong hands. But inhalers are different than antibiotics or other prescription drugs that are taken at regularly scheduled intervals. The risk that some non-asthmatic students might abuse the inhalers is dwarfed by the risk of blocking access to inhalers. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, nearly 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, including over 9 percent of children, and there are about 3,300 deaths resulting from asthma each year, “many of which are avoidable with proper treatment and care.”

This isn’t the first time a school policy came between a student with asthma and his inhaler. Last year, a student with asthma experiencing breathing difficulties passed out when a school nurse and school dean refused to allow him to use his inhaler – which was “still in its original packaging, complete with his name and directions for its use” – because his mother hadn’t filled out the proper form. The school did not call 911 and insisted even after the fact that it had done the right thing by following its policy to the letter.