September 6 2013

Latest Thing in Education: Fat Report Cards

Patrice J. Lee

With Labor Day behind us students are back in their desks ready to learn. Many students are subjected to a lesson in health that is embarrassing and could have negative emotional impacts. Call it informative or cruel, but school administrators across the country are starting the school year off sending home what kids call “fat letters” informing parents whether their children are overweight.

Reportedly, in an effort to identify those kids who are on track to become obese, dietitians review the numbers and send letters to parents about the weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) of their kids. They hope this will be an eye-opener for parents and prompt them to help improve their child’s health.

For the past several years, schools in almost twenty states have participated in a data collection initiative that includes annual student weigh-ins but not all schools go to the same length with the information they receive. Los Angeles for example identifies whether the students are obese and tells the parents, while Massachusetts just sends out the BMI test results allowing parents to draw their own conclusions.

Pediatricians and supporters hail this effort arguing that BMI readings can prevent childhood obesity and coupled with annual weigh-ins can encourage more nutritious eating habits.

However, parents are understandably outraged by this:

“No one wants [to] get letter saying they’re obese. That’s a very strong, uncomfortable word, and we didn’t see if fitting with our son who is very active, he’s very strong,” said one parent of a sports-playing kid who was sent home with a "fat letter."

One parent is also concerned about the emotional impact of the letters on adolescents: “Their bodies are changing … And then they get this number that says, ‘Oh, you know, you’re not the right number.’ It’s just a horrible way to start womanhood.”

And those who are fighting eating disorders think these efforts can do more harm than intended good:

“I would like to see BMI testing in schools banned. For those who are already insecure about their weight, these tests can potentially trigger an eating disorder,” Claire Mysko of the National Eating Disorders Association told ABC News.

This is just another example of the nanny state intruding into the lives of Americans. Sadly, it’s beginning with children as young as six or seven years old.

This goes beyond banning what some experts consider unhealthy behavior such as sugary drinks to actually shaming individuals into a desired course of action. When Good Morning America talked to students about the fat letters, the kids expressed their own disdain for the practice with one nine year old fearing that bullying might result.

The embarrassment of getting weighed and receiving “fat letters,” potentially devastating for some shy kids, are unintended consequences that the experts probably never imagined. The motivation may be well-intended, but history is littered with examples of harmful government actions that were based upon good intentions.

That these programs are not voluntary also rob parents and students of the choice of participating. Why school systems feel they should venture into the domain reserved for pediatricians and parents is questionable. And course they should be trusted, look at job they are doing educating students. Perhaps some of the money used for these efforts can go toward the primary focus of schooling: to educate children.

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