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Published in Print: April 3, 2002, as School Letters on Students' Obesity Outrage Some Parents

School Letters on Students' Obesity Outrage Some Parents

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Two school districts that sent letters to parents informing them that their children might have weight problems based on school-sponsored health screenings are facing a backlash.

Angry parents have accused officials in the two districts—one in Pennsylvania and the other in Florida—of everything from meddling in family matters, to harming students' self-esteem, to contributing to obesity by allowing vending machines on campus.

But some national experts contend that such notifications are sound. "It's a good idea, given the increasing problem with obese children," said David A. Birch, the president of the American Association for Health Education, based in Reston, Va.

Mr. Birch said that 13 percent of American children and young adults are overweight.

Still, "all hell broke loose" after parents in the East Penn, Pa., school district received letters stating that their children might be overweight or underweight, said George A. Ziolkowski, the director of pupil-personnel services for the 6,800-student district near Allentown.

Pennsylvania schools are required by state law to measure students' height and weight and conduct vision, hearing, and dental screenings each year. But little was done with the information in the past, other than to tuck it away in files, Mr. Ziolkowski said.

Health Risks Cited

Then school nurses in the district, concerned by what is seen as a growing trend toward obesity in young children, approached Mr. Ziolkowski and suggested that the district inform parents where their children ranked on the Body Mass Index. That weight-assessment system is endorsed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Ziolkowski said his first reaction was "absolutely not." He feared such a move would upset parents. But the nurses continued to press the issue, he said, presenting him with more evidence linking childhood weight problems to other serious health problems.

Children who are obese are at risk for developing type-2 diabetes and breathing problems, and children who are underweight can be at greater risk for heart problems, anemia, osteoporosis, and growth and developmental problems, Mr. Ziolkowski noted.

East Penn's letters started going out last fall, and so far, about 400 have been sent from the district's pupil personnel office to elementary school students.

The letter states that the school is concerned with the fitness of the student; lists the student's height, weight, and rank on the BMI; cites a number of health risks connected to weight problems; assures parents that the information is confidential; and urges them to get in touch either with the pupil-personnel office or their child's physician.

"We've tried to be as sensitive as we can about this," said Mr. Ziolkowski. He added that the school never uses the terms "obese" or "fat" when referring to a child who is overweight.

Raising Parent Ire

Even so, some parents were not happy with the notifications. One East Penn mother even appeared last week on NBC's "Today" show to complain about the letter she received.

Parents have also criticized the schools for serving what they say are unhealthy lunches, allowing vending machines on school grounds, and offering physical education classes only once a week.

"We are giving our students a mixed message," said Tomi Waters Boylstein, the president of the Pennsylvania PTA. "We want them to have good nutrition, but we are providing pop machines on campus."

Mr. Birch of the health education association said that schools should offer meals that have fewer than 30 percent of their calories from fat. He also suggested schools should offer counseling to students dealing with weight issues, and stress lifelong physical activities— such as swimming, tennis, and weight training—in gym classes.

Parents in the 15,000-student Citrus County school district in western Florida, meanwhile, also have been receiving letters concerning their children's weight as part of a program established by the county health department.

According to newspaper reports, those letters were placed in children's backpacks, which made some parents worry the notification could harm a child's self-esteem.

Neither school officials nor officials from the health department were available for comment last week.

But children's self-esteem was a major consideration in the East Penn district, according to Mr. Ziolkowski, who noted that the district mailed the letters directly to parents.

"[Parents] can choose to do something with it," he said, "or ball it up and throw it in the trash can."

Vol. 21, Issue 29, Page 11

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