Schools increasingly check students for obesity

Amid alarming national statistics showing an epidemic in childhood obesity, hundreds of thousands of students across the country are being weighed and measured
Associated Press
Mar 29, 2014

The Chula Vista school district not only measures the academic progress of Marina Beltran's second-grader, it also measures her son's body fat.

Every two years, Antonio Beltran, like his classmates, steps on a scale. Trained district personnel also measure his height and then use the two figures to calculate his body mass index, an indicator of body fat.

The calculation isn't reported to Beltran or her son, who cannot see the readout on the scale that has a remote display. Instead it's used by the district to collect local data on children's weight.

Beltran supports her son's school in measuring students because the data has brought in help to address obesity, which can lead to diabetes and other illnesses tied to a lifetime of poor habits.

But the practice hasn't been embraced everywhere.

Other school districts have angered parents and eating disorder groups by conducting screenings to identify overweight children and send home what critics call obesity report cards or "fat letters."

Amid the nation's childhood obesity epidemic, schools in nearly a quarter of all states record body mass index scores, measuring hundreds of thousands of students.

Some, like the Chula Vista Elementary School District, do what is known as surveillance, in which students are measured to identify how many are at risk for weight-related health problems but they remain anonymous. Other districts do screenings to track the weight of individual students and notify parents whose children are classified at an unhealthy weight.

Chula Vista is being touted for its methods that have resulted in motivating the community to take action. When almost 25,000 students were measured in 2010, it discovered about 40 percent of its children were obese or overweight.

Officials used the data to make a color-coded obesity map of the district and showed the community. Instead of creating a stir, the information acted as a distress call, bringing in help. Schools boosted partnerships with doctors. They planted gardens, banned cupcakes at school birthdays, and tracked kids' activity levels.

"I've seen a dramatic change," Beltran said of her son, who now eats carrots and looks forward to running club.

Chula Vista's program — which measures students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade — differs from California's state-mandated program for fifth, seventh and ninth graders that screens students and notifies parents of the scores.

Vicki Greenleaf said she received what she called a "fat letter" in the mail last summer from the Los Angeles Unified School District. Her daughter does Brazilian martial arts four times a week and is built like Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, but was classified as overweight by the state-mandated body mass index screening program, she said.

Critics say body mass index can be misleading for muscular body types.

Greenleaf, a spokeswoman for the National Eating Disorders Association, said her daughter knew about the screening's limitations but other children's self-esteem could be seriously harmed by such notifications.

"I think those letters make kids feel bad about themselves," she said. "For a kid that is predisposed to an eating disorder, those are the kind of triggers that can set it off."

Massachusetts in October stopped requiring schools notify parents when a child scores high after receiving reports that the data was not safeguarded enough, "leading to alarm, confusion or embarrassment," according to the state's public health department. Parents can request the results.

"The current policies to protect student data are pretty inconsistent and at times woefully inadequate," said James Steyer, CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media, which reviews technology and children's privacy.

Little is known about the outcomes of school-based measurement programs, including effects on attitudes, and behaviors of youth and their families. As a result, no consensus exists on their utility for young people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schools, over medical clinics, have the advantage of having access to the largest number of children. The local data is valuable to researchers who have had a dearth of childhood obesity information, and it can be used to pinpoint places that need help, said Dr. Matt Longjohn, an assistant adjunct professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

"If parents knew the facts — that obesity solutions may be being applied to their communities inequitably or inadequately without this data — they would support this," Longjohn said.

Statewide childhood obesity rates in Arkansas have remained relatively stable since it became the first state in 2003 to mandate school-based screenings.

Arkansas has become a model for how to do it, as well as Chula Vista's school district, along with San Diego County's Health and Human Services Agency, which also now records children's body mass index scores, Longjohn said.

A kit by Chula Vista for other schools recommends a professional digital scale with a remote display so only trained staff sees the number, and not listing children's names in any report. Mirroring CDC's guidance for schools, staff explains to parents how the information will be used and they can opt out.

The district found that schools with the most overweight students were in the poorest areas and had the smallest number of parks and the highest concentration of fast-food restaurants.

Beltran said the map motivated parents, but they would have been uncomfortable if officials had issued body fat report cards.

"Nobody wants to feel attacked or put on the offensive by being singled out," she said. "So it helped that we were told we're all in this together."

The cafeteria at Lilian J. Rice Elementary, Antonio Beltran's school, now offers fruit and vegetables from local farms and eliminated chocolate milk. Parent Teacher Association fundraisers sell bracelets and magazines instead of nachos and candy.

In 2012, the district measured again and found obesity rates dropped by 3 percent and the number of students in the normal weight range increased by 3 percent — meaning about 750 students had moved down a level.

"We're not yet where we want to be, but we're close," Principal Ernesto Villanueva said. "Considering 80 percent of our most common disease could be prevented by changing what we eat, that's pretty powerful stuff."

Students will be measured again this fall.

Comments

sugar

Unbelievable intrusion into our lives. The government thinks Americans are too stupid to figure out if they or their kids are overweight, and how to fix it. What next motivation to lose weight with a gun to the head? See the monster you have created liberals?

deertracker

Some are too stupid!

coasterfan

Apparently, we ARE too stupid to figure out how to fix it, or we don't care enough about our kids to do something about it. Otherwise, there wouldn't be an epidemic of obesity, would there?

You can spare us the diatribes about "unbelievable intrusion into our lives", considering it's the conservative party who continually tries to force its way into our bedrooms with their stance on contraception, abortion and (unbelievably) vaginal probes. Furthermore, if it ever becomes policy that guns would be used as "motivation", it's likely that the rightwing gun nuts would be the ones behind that.

But aside from that, what could possibly be wrong with schools trying to help students towards a more healthy life, by helping prevent obesity?

Pete

We should just let the NEA (Nazi Enforcement Agency) determine what template children should fit. Heck why not just send kids to their indoctrination camps for rearing?

Pterocarya frax...

You never get tired of the Hitler references, do you?

Before you throw out that reference again, it would serve you well to spend an hour or 2 reading up on the history of Nazism and fascism...signed, "The Parasite"

The Big Dog's back

Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks (including: name calling, presumption of guilt or guilt by association, insensitivity, or picking fights) and Personal information.

Pete

My dad was a USW member Brutus. So you missed on that one...

Pterocarya frax...

Dear moderator,

What was so wrong about Big Dogs comment that got it deleted? I saw it, and it had no cursing, name calling, or anything objectionable. In another story's comments in the last 24 hours, I have been called: "scum, 7th grade girl, boner, weasel, douchbag[sic], parasite, leach[sic], azzhole", and been taunted to fight, and not one of those comments was deleted.

So I ask, what is the criteria to get a comment deleted? It would be nice if you would address that, so we know what to expect. Thank you in advance for addressing this question.

thinkagain

Welcome to my world…ya big baby.

Pete

At least you're starting to realize you're a parasite. That's the first step towards becoming a productive member of society. Congrats!

sugar

Because it's none of their darn business. The gov has strictly defined powers and it is not to monitor body fat. Do you have any desire to be an independent, free individual? Why do you need the overreach of gov micromanaging your life?

ladydye_5

I would be sure to OPT OUT of this the FIRST day of school. I take care of my children, the health, and well being. They go to the doctor every year for a check up and are perfectly healthy. If they want proof, fine, I will provide it. There is NO need to take BMI on my kid. (Oh and for the record, my kids are technically thin/underweight)

The Big Dog's back

So what's your solution to the epidemic? Let it heal itself?

ladydye_5

No that is the solution for me and my family.

The Big Dog's back

So what should we do with the kids who don't have responsible parents?

thinkagain

Maybe you'd like to murder them like you do with the unborn who don't have responsible parents...

44846GWP

Can you stay on topic Rev. Dipsh-t?

donutshopguy

Dog ,

Are you acknowledging that their are parents that aren't responsible ?

deertracker

We get it ladydye. You are the Mrs. Clever of the 21st century! Congrats!

ladydye_5

Never claimed to be. I am a responsible parent. Sorry. Isn't that what all of you preach?

KURTje

Errr. Because no one remembers a school nurse going around to schools years ago or being weighed. Americans for the most part ARE weak & fat.

deertracker

True!

Maggdi

The dirty little secrete is these bureaucrats that we keep handing more and more power to aren't anymore capable to administer these standards than the average citizen. They are the same imperfect creatures. But we're suppose to take on faith that because 'they're from the government and here to help' that their cure isn't worse than the 'disease'. Tell that to the parents in Massachusetts who just had their child taken from them because a hospital disagreed with her other doctors about what was wrong with her. Or the parents of an 'obese' 2 year old baby in Texas taken from them because the officials thought they could show these parents how to take better care of her. Only to return her after 6 months without being able to bring the baby to what they considered a proper weight.
But I guess I'll be told you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. I really don't want me or mine to be one of those eggs.

YoMamma

My question is... Is there a correlation between obesity and SNAP cards? Just my personal conversation at the stores, many of the food stamp users have carts FULL of processed foods, chips, pop and other junk foods. Very rarely do they have fruits and vegetables, let alone in processed meats.

Not to slam food stamp users at all, but just saying if we don't limit the types of foods you can get with the SNAP card it is counter productive.

deertracker

Tell us what people buy that don't use stamps! Tell me how you limit what food a person buys. Get a life!

donutshopguy

In view of no personal responsibility by parents and children the government swoops in to fill the void .

Ya gotta control the masses.

The Big Dog's back

What's your solution?

deertracker

Here we go! Personal responsibility this, personal responsibility that! Same old tired noise!

The Big Dog's back

Personal responsibility except when it's healthcare.

donutshopguy

Personal responsibility is tired noise.

Boy, is this country in trouble.

Pages