As recently reported by CNN and in several news stories over the last few days, the parents of elementary school students in 19 states -- including Arkansas, Illinois, California and Massachusetts – are receiving letters regarding something quite personal about their child and outside the scope of a school's typical business and expertise; their children's weight, and more specifically, their child's BMI and an unsubstantiated opinion of their child's risk factors based upon this BMI.
Apparently, school dieticians measure students' height and weight, factor in age, and then magically come up with a number representing a student's Body Mass Index, that they claim is meaningful, without consideration of the child's age, athletic background, muscle mass, ethnic background or even how the child looks. While most schools have no funds to pay for music, sports programs, teachers' aids, let alone copy paper, they found money to pay dieticians to calculate BMIs?
The most disturbing part of this process, and as reported over the last few days by news agencies and the TODAY show, is how the school conveys this information to the parents. More specifically, the story of 11 year old Naples, Florida middle school student, Lilly Grasso, has made headlines. Lilly is a young and active volleyball player who eats healthy foods. Lilly, however, measured in with a BMI of 22.
As a result, the Florida Department of Public Health in Collier County sent Lilly home, with what is now known as a "fat letter," accessible to Lilly to read. Lilly's mother indicates the letter said Lilly was "at risk", and when she visited the website noted in the letter, the "at risk" is translated into, "Lilly is overweight." Lilly's mother believes, and reasonably so, that Lilly is at a healthy weight and the Florida Department of Public Health made a mistake. But how do you explain that to an 11 year old if they happen to open the letter?
In response, Deb Millsap, public information officer of the Collier County Health Department, and Dr. Joan Colfer, the department director, told the TODAY show that while the letters are sent home with the students, they are in sealed envelopes addressed to the parents. Students can open the letters, but that means they are reading their parents' mail. Certainly, for any parent who knows how an 11 year old thinks, it is highly probable that they will open the letter. As Lilly's mother suggests, why can't they just mail the letters to the parents?
Our educators work hard teaching our children about math, science and English. It appears, however, that they may need a little tutoring when it comes to compassion, sensitivity and tact. These letter are not just being sent in elementary schools but have also turned up recently in Southern California at a preschool. That means the students being weighed and measured were between 2 and 5 years old. Imagine someone labeling a 2-year-old child "obese."
In Massachusetts, state lawmakers are considering a bill that bans schools from collecting students' BMI information.
We applaud schools who help educate our children on healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, but these "fat letters" seem to go far beyond what is reasonable. It is likely, that these letters will only increase the trend we already see- children going on diets. Furthermore, those who have body image issues, or those who are vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, will only find further distress from this new screening tool. According to a study by Duke University, more than 40% of 9- and 10-year-old girls have gone on a diet.
Schools cannot claim to be part of the solution, if they are actually part of the problem. Calling into question a child's weight or overall health based upon the mere calculation of numbers, without full consideration of all relevant facts, is detrimental the the health and wellbeing of our children. Moreover, if schools intend to continue in this practice, any information transmitted about a child's health should be sent home via mail.