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opinion

On Thursday, Ontario adopted Bill 20, Ryan's Law (Ensuring Asthma Friendly Schools).

The new law allows school kids to carry asthma inhalers, and makes teacher training mandatory so they can spot the danger signs when a child has difficulty breathing.

This is a wonderful initiative. But, at the same time, we need to wonder why legislation is necessary. Why does it take a legislative whip for school boards, schools, principals and teachers to meet the needs of children with chronic illnesses such as asthma?

Why, time and time again, does it take a dead child before our schools act sensibly?

Ryan's Law is named for 12-year-old Ryan Gibbons. He died on Oct. 9, 2012, during recess at his school in Straffordville, Ont. As his airways swelled and he was unable to breathe, Ryan's asthma puffer was locked in the principal's office.

Before that, we had Bill 3, Sabrina's Law (an act to protect anaphylactic pupils). The law, which came into force in 2006, was named after Sabrina Shannon, a 13-year-old who died in 2003 after eating cross-contaminated French fries in her school cafeteria. Her EpiPen was in her locker and she died before it could be administered.

Let's be clear: Every child who needs life-saving medication should be carrying it with them at all times, without exception.

Yet, in many Canadian schools, it is routine procedure to strip children of their asthma inhalers, epinephrine injectors, insulin, blood products, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medication and so on. They must be locked in the principal's office or kept in lockers for "safety" reasons.

The greatest safety risk from medication is denying it to a person in need. Nobody has ever assaulted or poisoned anyone with an asthma puffer. Yet, a couple of dozen children annually die of asthma-related complications.

The No. 1 factor in whether a child survives an asthma attack or anaphylactic reaction is speed of the reaction. Petty bureaucracy should not be putting children's lives at risk.

While the Ontario initiatives are well-intentioned, this type of piecemeal response is not enough. Across the country there is a patchwork of policies that varies between provinces, school boards and even within individual schools.

What Canadian children with chronic conditions need are human rights protections like those that exist in the United States. Under the Rehabilitation Act, schools must essentially sign a contract with parents of children with chronic illnesses that obliges them to respect a child's medical treatment plan. Under these so-called "504 plans," schools must not only make a child's medication available, but also facilitate its proper use. Schools that do not respect the law lose government funding.

The reality is that there are a large number of children living with chronic health conditions; for example, about one in seven children have asthma (although, to be clear, not all have a severe, life-threatening condition.)

All teachers have to know first aid. But in the 21st century, first aid is more than patching up cuts and doing CPR. It's about recognizing mental-health crises, knowing the signs of anaphylaxis, being able to administer glucagon to a child with diabetes, or knowing how to use an EpiPen or a defibrillator in an emergency.

There has to be some recognition that educators are in an unenviable position. Go into any school office and there will likely be a wall of photos of children, identified by their medical condition, and a box of asthma inhalers, EpiPens and a dizzying array of pills that students take each day. Worse yet, most schools don't have nurses on-site any more.

As inconvenient as it may be, schools have to manage this new reality. And it is the safety of students that must be paramount, not the convenience of administrators.

Public institutions such as schools should be setting an example of equality and integration. They should be caring, welcoming places.

The new law will provide some comfort to parents. But it should leave us all uneasy as well.

It is shameful that legislation is actually needed to mandate compassion and common sense in our schools.