Student Well-Being

School Letters on Students’ Obesity Outrage Some Parents

By Michelle Galley — April 03, 2002 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as School Letters on Students’ Obesity Outrage Some Parents

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Quiz How Much Do You Know About the Needs of the Whole Child?
Answer 7 questions to see how much you know about the needs of the whole child.
Student Well-Being Flu Vaccinations Among Children Are Down. That Could Spell Trouble for Schools
The convergence of flu and COVID-19 infections could exacerbate student absences and staff shortages.
2 min read
An employee with the Hidalgo County Health Department holds out a roll of flu vaccine stickers that are used to verify who has been temperature screened Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2020, at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic on the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show grounds in Mercedes, TX.
An employee with the Hidalgo County Health Department holds out a roll of flu vaccine stickers that are used to verify who has been temperature screened at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Mercedes, Texas
Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald/AP
Student Well-Being Opinion The Case for Virtual Social and Emotional Learning
Can student social and emotional well-being be supported online? Rick Hess speaks with the founder of EmpowerU, which seeks to do just that.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Student Well-Being ‘Good Thing I Have Thick Skin’: School Nurses Describe the Pandemic’s Toll
During peak levels of transmission, contact tracing has involved hundreds of students and staff that nurses investigated on a daily basis.
Erin Bamer, The York Dispatch
4 min read
The front of the Bellefonte Area School District certified school nurses office on Aug. 15, 2016 in Centre County, Penn.
The front of the Bellefonte Area School District certified school nurses office on Aug. 15, 2016 in Centre County, Penn.
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP