Seated beside the tearful mother of a girl who died in school of an allergic reaction to peanuts, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed legislation Thursday intended to help schools come to the aid of such students.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell with Laura Pendleton, whose daughter died at school of an allergic reaction to peanuts, at the signing of “Amarria’s Law.” ((Michaele White, governor’s photographer))

“Virginia must do everything it can to ensure the safety of our young people while they are in school,” McDonnell said at a bill-signing ceremony in Richmond. “This legislation and the money in the recently passed budget will help prevent another tragedy like Amarria Johnson's from occurring in a public school in the commonwealth. Having a plan in place and access to epinephrine in schools, where children spend half their day, is critical.”

Commonly referred to as the “EpiPen bills,” the measures direct local school boards to establish policies for keeping epinephrine pens on hand at every school, so that a school nurse or other employee could administer it to any student thought to be having an anaphylactic reaction. Henceforth, it was announced, the legislation will be known as “Amarria’s Law.”

A group called the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network is pushing for a national measure along the same lines, according to a representative who attended the signing.

The bill-signing took place at Binford Middle School in Richmond rather than at Amarria’s school because organizers thought the event would be too emotional for her classmates. Binford was chosen because one of Amarria’s cousins, Michelle Foster, is in the eighth grade there. Foster and another cousin, Sharice Green, had advocated for the bills, as had Amarria’s mother, Laura Pendleton.

McDonnell praised Pendleton for having the strength to channel her grief into a campaign certain to save lives.

“It is rare to find some people that can find their way through their tears and their heartache and their personal loss, to want to go out and do something that will only help other people — in other words, prevent another mom or another family from having to endure a loss from somebody going into anaphylactic shock from a food allergy,” he said. “This is a woman of immense character.”

Pendleton, who dabbed her eyes with a tissue as McDonnell spoke, briefly addressed the students gathered in the auditorium. She asked those with food allergies to raise their hands and urged them to be careful.

“Always have a plan,” she said.

The bills, sponsored by Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) and Del. Thomas A. “Tag” Greason (R-Loudoun), specified that in the event that someone sued over use of an epinephrine pen, school employees could not be held liable for civil damages so long as they had acted in good faith.

The measures received broad, bipartisan supporting during a General Assembly session dominated by partisan clashes over social legislation, control of the Senate and the state budget.

“There is no Democratic or Republican way to try to preserve a life,” said McEachin, who attended along with two delegates who had co-sponsored the House bill with Greason: Dr. John M. O’Bannon (R-Henrico) and Peter F. Farrell (R-Henrico).

The two-year, $85 billion state budget approved by the General Assembly last week included $200,000 for epinephrine pens in public schools in time for the 2012-2013 school year.