Parents of diabetic children demand more from Toronto's largest school board

The TDSB's move to allow naloxone kits in its high schools is prompting a call to train teachers on how to administer a powerful hormone that can save students suffering from extreme low blood sugar.

TDSB standing by diabetes plans for now, says teachers are trained to call 911 during emergencies

Parents of children with Type 1 diabetes are hoping the Toronto District School Board will train its teachers how to administer a powerful hormone that can help in situations of extreme low blood sugar. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Matt Stimson says it was "sheer panic" as he raced to his daughter Tilly's school moments after receiving an emergency call that her blood sugar had plunged.

When he arrived, "they were ramming sugar into her as quick as they could," he told CBC Toronto.

Tilly, who has Type 1 Diabetes, clung to consciousness despite hitting a blood sugar low enough to be life-threatening. It took more than a full jar of maple syrup to stabilize her, Stimson said, and the Grade 5 student still wound up spending the afternoon in hospital as a precaution.

However, one treatment option, a powerful hormone called Glucagon that's administered with a syringe, wasn't available in Tilly's Peterborough school.

"Glucagon in that sort of situation would have been a huge consideration. It would be like, 'Yeah, break the kit out, let's go,'" Stimson said.

He and many more parents with diabetic children want Glucagon to be a fixture in schools the same way that epipens are, and they want teachers to learn how to administer it. Now, they're eyeing a fresh chance to make that happen.

Mom says training is the 'bare minimum'

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the city's largest board, just decided to allow naloxone kits into high schools in an effort to prevent potentially fatal opioid overdoses. Celia Schwartz, whose 8-year-old son also has Type 1 diabetes says now's the time to bring in Glucagon, too.

"Glucagon training is the bare minimum. Every school should have it," she said.

Diabetes Canada is also pushing for that, arguing in a policy paper that school personnel need to be ready to deal with a severe hypoglycemic reaction. "Students living with diabetes have the right to be full and equal participants in school and all school-related activities without the fear of being excluded, stigmatized, or discriminated against," the document states.

The TDSB issued a statement saying its teachers have plans to help students manage their diabetes, but it's not considering changing its procedures to stock Glucagon. Students can bring their own kits to school, the emailed statement says, but teachers aren't responsible for administering it.

"Our procedure requires schools to contact 911 should severe hypoglycaemia be suspected and provide the Glucagon to emergency services personnel to administer when they arrive," said the statement provided by spokesperson Ryan Bird, on behalf of health and safety staff.

A change at TDSB could lead to changes elsewhere

The school board estimates as many as one in 300 students has Type 1 diabetes, while many more have the non-insulin dependent Type 2.

Schwartz says the school board needs to do much better when it comes to protecting those kids. In junior kindergarten, she hired someone to go to school with her son to monitor his sugar levels, and later opted to move him to a private school where she says there's more support.

Since the move, he hasn't had a single sick day. But at the east end TDSB school he had been attending, she says: "our principal had no familiarity … no knowledge of how to do anything with Type 1, and really couldn't offer anything to us."

Some schools have part-time nurses, she says, but diabetes is an "illness of vigilance" that requires constant attention.

Stimson says in Tilly's case it's still not clear what caused her blood sugar to drop, but when it did it was like lightning. She has an education assistant to help her manage her condition — something kids eventually figure out how to do on their own — but Stimson says he'd still be more comfortable knowing there's a Glucagon kit at her school.

He's still hoping the TDSB will change its procedures, so he'll have a precedent to bring to school officials in his city.

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.