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Teachers unions shouldn't stop EpiPen bill from saving kids' lives

Teachers unions shouldn't stop EpiPen bill from saving kids' lives
A consultant teaches educators at a middle school in Michigan how to use an epinephrine auto-injector. That state already has a law similar to the bill on Gov. Brown's desk, to supply schools with the life-saving devices and train staff to administer them. (Mandi Wright / Associated Press)

How about if we save kids' lives first and worry as a secondary matter about the niceties of exactly who did it?

The bill carried by state Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar would stock every California public school with epinephrine auto-injectors, known best by the brand name EpiPen, and have staff volunteers learn to use them. It's inexpensive, low in bureaucratic factor and good for kids. Yet its signature from Gov. Jerry Brown is not assured.

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That's because the two powerful teachers unions in the state object to SB 1266. They say that only medical experts—i.e. school nurses—should administer the pens, and that unions fear that teachers who lack tenure will be coerced, on pain of losing their jobs, if they don't agree to "volunteer."

Of course, it would be a wonderful thing if we had full-time school nurses at all our schools. But we don't. The financial picture for California schools has improved, but they're still making hard choices. If they get to add someone, should it be a nurse, teacher, librarian, counselor, campus police officer? Or maybe the money should go to some raises for the teachers.

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Besides, the school nurse might be away from campus for an hour or two, or a whole day.

The auto-injectors give a quick shot of epinephrine to someone suffering from an allergic reaction so severe that it can fatally close the victim's breathing passages. And it's almost a misnomer to talk about "training" someone to use them. Having taken many first-aid classes for the (non-school) volunteer work that I do, I can say that the pen is probably the easiest form of lifesaving help that a non-expert can provide. Easier than the Heimlich maneuver. Much, much easier than CPR. You take the safety off one end, and press the other end firmly against the thigh. It's OK to leave on any clothing.

Children with known severe allergies already are allowed to keep their pens with them at school. But some children with severe allergies haven't had a reaction yet, so they and their parents don't know there's an issue. This bill would make sure there's a simple remedy around for that situation.

Would we think it amiss to train the staff at a school in the Heimlich maneuver in case a child starts choking on a grape? I hope not. Yet epinephrine auto-injectors are just about as safe if not more so. And 911 would be called right away, so if there were any problems, there would be trained medical personnel on hand to deal with them. But the epinephrine has to be delivered quickly, more quickly than paramedics might be able to arrive.

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Brown is seldom willing to ruffle the teachers unions, but this time he should. Several doctors' groups favor the bill, as well as the Red Cross, PTA and California School Nurses' Organization, while the opposition is limited to the two teacher groups. The possibility of saving a child's life should take precedence over any squeamishness about using this very simple first-aid device.

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