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Bill to let pupils with asthma self-medicate

Thursday, September 28, 2000

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- Dubbed the Flagpole Mom, Deanna Lesneski was almost speechless at the news that school districts would be forced to allow asthmatic students to self-medicate under a bill that received an important House committee vote yesterday.

"I have goosebumps," said the Washington County woman who gained international media attention for her flagpole protest. "This is very crucial. It could be a life-and-death matter."

For years, she has battled the McGuffey School District over whether her son, Ryan "Max" Lesneski, 7, who has asthma, Down syndrome and a hearing disability, could administer his own asthma medicine through an inhaler.

She became so upset when the district first refused, then last month prohibited the school nurse from administering the medication, that she tied herself to a flagpole for 19 days last month at Blaine-Buffalo Elementary School.

Yesterday, the House Education Committee unanimously approved a bill that would force all 501 school districts in the state to allow students to take asthma medicine on their own. The bill is expected to go to the full House within several weeks and then on to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.

"This is a no-brainer," said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Lita Indzel Cohen, D-Conshohocken. "This is just good for kids. And that's what we're all about."

Cohen, who drafted the measure a year ago in response to a constituent complaint in her suburban Philadelphia legislative district, said many school districts across the state had refused to allow students to take asthma medication on their own, fearing that would open the door to lawsuits in the event of a medical mishap.

State law is silent on the issue. Some schools consider asthma medicine a drug, and allowing students to carry puffers would violate anti-drug policies. Some districts don't know they can allow students to take the medicine on their own and force them to go to the school nurse whenever they have an asthma attack, Cohen said.

Some districts "absolutely refuse" to have even a nurse administer asthma medication, she said.

The bill would require school districts to come up with written policies on the use of asthma inhalers but mandates that schools allow students to self-medicate.

Cohen said asthma was the leading cause of absenteeism in school-age children and the most common chronic illness among youngsters. The bill is supported by the American Lung Association and the Pennsylvania Society of Respiratory Care.

The moments after an asthma attack are crucial, so delays caused by a student having to obtain medication from a nurse are unsafe, Cohen said.

Lesneski began her protest Aug. 28, when she said she was informed by district officials that they would not be administering her son's asthma medications this school year, and her son had an asthma attack. By the time she got to the school, his lips were gray and he was panting, she said. His inhaler had been taken from him when he tried to self-medicate, she said.

So, she set up a lawn chair and used jump ropes from her car to tie herself to the flagpole, beginning a protest that would draw media attention from as far away as England and earn her the nickname "Flagpole Mom." Eventually, a compromise was reached to allow her son to carry his medications.

The bill "will make a lot of good changes for a lot of children," Lesneski said yesterday when told of the bill's existence. "This is so important for districts and parents as well as for children. This is very good."

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