Claudia Crunelle of Dumas has vivid memories of having epileptic seizures at school as a child. At the time, neither her teachers nor her fellow students knew enough about epilepsy or seizures to understand what was happening or how to properly help her. She remembers being called "that girl who shakes" by classmates. The stigma she felt has never gone away, and it has fueled a drive to change things for the better for the more than 50,000 Texas school students who suffer from epilepsy or other conditions, like head injuries, that sometimes cause them to have seizures.
On November 20, years of efforts by Crunelle, a member of the board of directors of the Epilepsy Foundation of West Texas, and others paid off as the Texas State Board of education voted unanimously to add epilepsy and seizure first aid to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills of the more than 5.5 million students in Texas schools. Beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, students in second grade and up will be taught about epilepsy as part of their mandatory health education. "If it starts in the smaller grades, it will help … create empathy, compassion, and understanding at a young age so that we can end that stigma for epilepsy. It is something that the Epilepsy Foundation has fought for for many years," said Crunelle.
Instruction on seizure first aid will be added in seventh grade. "We wanted students to be taught seizure first aid so they could help in case they saw … someone having a seizure at school, and so that they would have empathy." The addition of epilepsy is the first change to the state's health curriculum in 22 years. "This is going to be huge," said Crunelle.
Last year, Crunelle lobbied legislators during the 86th Texas Legislature for passage of Sam's Law. Named for Samantha Watkins, an East Texas teenager who died during a seizure in 2016, though she had no history of epilepsy or previous seizures, Sam's Law requires all Texas teachers and school personnel to undergo epilepsy education and seizure first aid training. After a long and complicated process, Sam's Law was passed on literally the last day of the legislature. It was one of only 1,148 of the 7,324 bills filed in the House and Senate to clear every hurdle of the process and become law. Crunelle's daughter Gabi, a Dumas High School teacher testified in favor of the law in front of the House Public Education Committee. Since the law went into effect during the fall of 2019, 2,540 school nurses and 118,518 teachers and other personnel, including those in Moore County, have completed the training, according to Crunelle.
Crunelle said the process this time was much easier than during the struggle for Sam's Law. She credits last years victory with smoothing the way for success before the Board of Education. "Sam's Law really did help us," she said. "We didn't have any difficulties." With COVID this year most of the process was virtual. Gabi submitted an opinion by email, and neither she nor Claudia had to travel to Austin. Claudia watched the vote by live stream on the internet. After the November 20 meeting of the Board of Education, which most members attended in person, several ended up testing positive for COVID.
Crunelle is amazed and excited by the success. "That was one of my personal big goals to get those two things accomplished and we accomplished it," she said.
Mostly she is happy for the students whose experience with epilepsy at school she believes will be much different from hers. "It will be a huge difference for that person who has a seizure to know that somebody is going to be able to help … it is so important for them to not be afraid to go to school. I was scared of going to school, and I know these kids, that is one of the things that they are scared of when they go to school, 'How is somebody going to help me?' This way either a teacher can help or a student is going to know how to help … and that is the main thing, being able to help each other."