December 21, 2004
Fifteen minutes was all it took for Keenan DiRoberts to stop breathing last Christmas — after he ate a gingerbread cookie that touched a peanut butter treat on the same platter.
A severe peanut allergy quickly caused the 7-year-old’s body to bloat, closing off his throat. Robin DiRoberts acted quickly to give her son a shot as she dialed 911.
Her worst fear: A similar emergency could take place while her son is at Scottsdale’s Cheyenne Traditional Academy — and no one would be prepared to respond in time.
It’s a concern shared by other East Valley parents and school nurses, who fear they will be on the chopping block after the holidays when school boards begin preparing their next fiscal budget.
Arizona’s school districts face tough financial times as costs for retirement and health insurance continue to rise, consuming larger portions of their funding.
"The costs just for retirement are skyrocketing," said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
Nurses who work in schools want not only to hold on to the positions they now have — they’re seeking to change law to ensure every school has a registered nurse.
"Not every school has a nurse, and what their concern is, there are children at risk because many of the schools have unlicensed staff watching over the kids," said Joey Ridenour, a registered nurse and executive director of the Arizona State Board of Nursing.
The board has joined with the Arizona Nurses Association and the School Nurses Organization of Arizona to begin talks on whether to recommend the state provide funding for every school to have an registered nurse on staff, particularly in light of an increase in students with chronic illnesses.
"This issue has been going on for a very long time, as far as school districts not having enough funds to have a nurse in every school," she said. "It’s been a struggle for many years."
According to 2001 statistics — the most recent available — from the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 percent of children 6 to 11 years old and 15 percent of those 12 to 17 years old have a chronic illness.
Last school year, the Scottsdale Unified School District considered saving $200,000 by cutting its nurse staff from one at every campus to sharing nurses among some elementary schools — a common arrangement among other districts.
"I can’t imagine having someone that wasn’t an RN taking care of him on a daily basis," Christel Baker said of son Jack, a Desert Canyon Elementary School firstgrader who has Type 1 diabetes and must constantly monitor his blood sugar. "He visits (the nurse) every day."
The school board promptly turned down the idea, and continues to pay for a registered nurse in every school, sharing a nurse only on the Copper Ridge elementary and middle school campuses which adjoin.
It’s a different situation in the Chandler Unified School District where district nurse June Winkler oversees nine schools. With well-trained aides, one nurse at every school is not necessary, she said.
"You can train health assistants because the doctors are training the parents," she said.
Advances, such as machines that measure and administer the correct dosage of insulin for diabetic children, also help schools in overseeing those with chronic illnesses, she said.
"We basically have everything all set up, so everyone is taken care of," Winkler said.
Mesa and Gilbert unified school districts share nurses over two campuses at the elementary level and provide a registered nurse for each junior high and high school.
The Apache Junction and Higley unified school districts and the Tempe Elementary School District are among those that have one registered nurse in every school — and sometimes two if the caseload is large.
"It’s real important we keep kids in school as much as possible," said Barbara Saxton, assistant superintendent in Higley. "It’s an expense. But I guess when you have campuses of over 1,000 kids, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of children to have busy office personnel determining if somebody is ill or dispensing regular medication."