CHICAGO (WLS) -- Students with severe food allergies are being isolated and targeted at school, and even teased with the very foods that can be life-threatening.
"It made me scared when kids would chase me around and say they had peanut butter and all of that," said Thomas Majka, who was bullied at school when he was in the second grade when he was so allergic to peanut butter that a tiny amount could cause a life-threatening reaction.
He is older now said bullying is no longer an issue, but food bullying impacts many children.
An estimated 4 million kids in the U.S. have food allergies. Research shows that one out of three of those children are being teased, or verbally threatened because of their condition.
Majka's mother, Eleanor Garrow-Holding, said her already vulnerable son faced daily dangerous harassment.
"One boy at lunch smeared peanut butter on the back of Thomas's neck," said Garrow-Holding, president/CEO of Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT). "They also took his medicine at lunch a few times because they thought it was funny."
She runs an allergy outreach website with an important message: "There needs to be zero tolerance across the board for bullying, period."
"It can look like chasing in the playground with their allergen. It can look like repetitive asking over and over. 'Why can't you eat it? Come on and try it. Just try it. I don't believe it will really hurt you. It probably won't. Give it a try,'" said Dr. Sarah Boudreau-Romano, an allergist at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
One explanation for the harassment is that the bullies don't like being told they can't bring certain foods to school
"People resented it, cupcakes-before-kids kind of situation, so we angered people," said Cindy, a Chicago area mother. "We angered parents and teachers it was hard to be the outcast."
Cindy said her daughter's school is much better now. She wants to remain anonymous to not disrupt that progress.
She said the bullying doesn't just come from kids, but also teachers and parents. She claims that her daughter was frequently forced to sit by herself in kindergarten when certain treats were present.
"She was scared to be in her classroom," Cindy said. "She was scared and felt awkward."
The bullies may not realize how serious allergic reactions can be, and how terrifying it is for the kids who know their lives are on the line.
"Once you are educated on a topic you are more empathic and when you are more empathic you are less likely to be a bully," said Boudreau-Romano, the Lurie allergist.
National guidelines are now urging schools to educate students about allergies.
Suburban Wilmette School District 39 is paving the way for how all schools could handle this type of bullying in the future. The district does not ban any specific food.
"My belief is we can't guarantee that a peanut will never come into the school. It's much after to embrace that possibility and plan for it," said Ray Lechner, District 39 superintendent.
At Harper Elementary in Wilmette, the allergen free table is still an option.
But kids like Ethan Thoem are allowed to eat with friends.
His lunch pals are aware of his peanut and milk allergies, and they watch out for him.
"I felt happy and excited I could sit there. But I always do have to sit on the side because if somebody did spill milk I can jump up," Thoem said.
Allergists told ABC7 that many kids who are bullied don't always tell their parents, so it's important to ask.
FAACT and Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has a national campaign underway aimed at curbing food allergy bullying.
Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE)
Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT)
Centers for Disease Control
Wilmette Public Schools District 39
The Allergist Mom Blog
Food Allergy Support and Education (FASE) workshops
Students with food allergies face bullying
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