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Publicity turns up the heat on Tacoma schools' sunscreen ban

Jesse Michener
Zoe and Violet came home from a field trip badly burned. Both sunscreen and hats were prohibited by school policy.

A couple of bad sunburns have left Tacoma’s school district smarting, and could help spur policy changes about students and sunscreen. Tacoma school officials say they’ll revisit a policy banning the use of sunscreen by students, except with a doctor’s note.

The district is getting national attention after a Tacoma mom’s storywent viral in late June. Jesse Michener says it never occurred to her to jump through the hoops it would take to get her daughters sunscreen when they left for a field trip on a rainy morning, but they came home burned badly enough that Michener took them to the hospital.

After the publicity, which included stories on the major TV networksand even a joke on the Tonight Show, school officials told Michener they may have some wiggle room.

“They promised policy change by October for Tacoma, which is a great start. I don’t think it goes far enough to impact all kids in Washington State,” Michener said.

A Tacoma Public Schools spokesman says the district’s hands were tied because of state law regulating medications in schools. That law happened to changein June. School nurses can now apply sunscreen, though kids on a daylong field trip might still be out of luck if they need it reapplied. 

State Representative Jeannie Darneille, who’s been active in pushing for tighter regulations on tanning beds, says she’s researching possible further changes to the law. She says sunscreen bans are alarming, given Washington’s high rates of skin cancer.

Not all Washington school districts have banned sunscreen. The state Office of Public Instruction has advised districts that they can make their own calls on whether to consider sunscreen medicine. Seattle Public Schools, for example, does not.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.