Two months after her 14-year-old ended up gasping for air as a peanut allergy constricted his throat, a mother still hasn’t received a full explanation of what happened to her son.
No one running Engineering & Science University Magnet School told the mom that an assistant principal had handed out nut-filled candy, and was eventually let go.
“Nobody called,” Tahania Cunningham, the boy’s mother, said in an interview. “They don’t care.”
In early April, an ESUMS administrator gave her freshman son a piece of candy, which triggered an allergic reaction and an overnight stay in the hospital, Cunningham said. Three anonymous sources and a written report confirmed the details of her account.
As of this week, Carl Babb, the retired administrator who returned to a part-time post at the school, is no longer employed by the district. A director of instruction has been working to schedule a conference with Cunningham, though the mom said she’d heard nothing about it.
Superintendent Carol Birks declined to comment on the case.
Shortly after noon on Monday, Apr. 9, a frigid day just above freezing, Cunningham’s son entered the cafeteria. Babb asked if he wanted a piece of candy.
“What is it?” the student allegedly asked. He said he was allergic. “Are there any nuts in it?”
“No, no nuts in there,” Babb said.
The student swallowed it, then immediately chucked it up in the bathroom.
Carl Babb tells a different story.
“He didn’t ask that,” Babb told the Independent Friday. He said another student had given him a long candy bar as a present. “Six or seven kids” gathered around and asked for a piece. Babb said he let the kids each break off a piece.
“Nobody asked if there were nuts in it,” Babb said.
The student went to the infirmary, where a nurse gave him a shot with an Epi-Pen. (The student didn’t have his own on him, which his mom had instructed him to keep “like his cell phone.”) Firemen and paramedics arrived, and the student was stretchered out into an ambulance.
The school phoned Cunningham and told her to go straight to Yale-New Haven Hospital. An employee waited there until she arrived.
In the room, her son had fallen asleep. When she roused him awake, he told her that someone gave him candy, but he didn’t say who. Cunningham assumed it was another student.
“You should know better,” she told him.
Her son complained about his stomach pain and kept vomiting. Doctors gave him another shot with an Epi-Pen and kept him overnight.
Back at school, in an all-staff meeting, administrators warned faculty not to pass out any food to kids. Just a week before, another teacher had been reprimanded for giving a student an apple that caused a reaction. Administrators said they couldn’t have another incident.
The next day, a nurse called Cunningham to check in.
Then, neither the parent nor the administration said anything else about it for another month and a half. Cunningham said that’s because she thought it would be unfair to blame the school if two students had shared food, as she initially thought.
“I just told my son to be more careful and I left it at that,” she said.
“I Thought They Told You”
Cunningham wouldn’t learn until late May that Babb actually gave her son the candy, not another student. Then she found glaring omissions in the school’s official write-up, leading her to suspect a coverup.
On May 29, Cunningham found out the true version as she went to pick up her son from ESUMS. While waiting, she chatted up an older employee she’d never met before. They laughed about how he’d accidentally left his cell phone in the car all morning and might come back to a busted window.
As Cunningham was leaving, the employee said something to her son she couldn’t hear, then started laughing.
Back in the car, Cunningham asked who he was. “Is that the new security guard?”
“He’s the assistant principal,” her son said.
“He’s the one that gave me the candy,” he continued.
“What?” Cunningham asked. “What candy?”
“You didn’t know?” he said.
“I thought a child gave it to you.”
“No, it was him,” he said. “I thought they told you.”
Her son added that, on the way over, Babb had been joshing him, saying, “I’m never giving you nothing again.”
A written report Cunningham obtained that day and shared with the Independent was filed a month late, gave incorrect information, left other answers blank and wasn’t signed by any administrators.
The form, which is used to report “all accidents, however slight,” is dated May 8, 2018 — a full month after her son was hospitalized.
It explains that a student “injested [sic] food product containing nuts,” but it doesn’t say how he got the candy.
It also misreports that the school nurse notified Cunningham; the mom remembered another employee calling her, as the nurse would have been busy administering the Epi-Pen at the time.
At the bottom of the form, two lines are entirely blank: spots where the person in charge at time and the school principal should have signed.
A day later, after Cunningham spoke up at a Board of Education meeting, ESUMS reissued a copy of the report with Carl Babb and Principal Medria Blue-Ellis’s signatures on it.
Cunningham said she felt deceived. “In the beginning, they should have told me. Then, after I spoke out, somebody still should have come to me,” she said. “I just expect them to follow the rules, and when they make a mistake, to own up to it.”
It orders the district to follow state health guidelines, including training staff, creating individualized health care plans, setting protocol for life-threatening reactions, and developing a communication plan.
The policy sets out that as children mature in high school, they should take on more responsibility for their health needs.
Njija-Ife Waters, president of the Citywide Parent Team, said that the district isn’t following those guidelines strictly enough.
“For three years, I came to this board consistently talking about life-threatening allergies. For three years, I kept telling this board we’re not up-to-date with laws,” she said at a recent meeting. “Look at the policies and update them according to state and federal regulations. It’s not going to matter what nobody says otherwise, because the law is the law. Get it together or you won’t have any money when you’ve got lawsuits facing you.”
Publicly, the school district hasn’t addressed its compliance with its policies, but privately, it canned the retired administrator who let it happen.
A former building leader at ESUMS before the combined middle and high school moved to a new campus, Babb officially retired in 2013, at age 60. The state started sending him retirement benefits, now totaling $6,523 a month.
In 2016, Babb reemerged to push for Superintendent Garth Harries’s firing. Along with seven other retired administrators, he signed an open letter complaining that the schools were devolving into “chaos” and asking for new leadership.
Shortly after Reggie Mayo took over as interim superintendent, Babb returned to ESUMS. Working part-time, he subbed in for the assistant principal who went on a two-month medical leave in December 2016 and then transferred to Fair Haven School in January 2018.
In late April, when Birks announced reductions to part-time staff, the Independent discovered that 72 retired administrators, including Babb, hadn’t submitted any paperwork to the Connecticut Teachers’ Retirement Board that justified his return to work. The oversight skirted federal and state laws intended to limit double-dipping on payroll and pensions.
This week, Babb wrapped up his three-decade education career when district officials told him that his part-time services were no longer necessary.