Schools, Yes; Fat Police, No

Posted: Mar 29, 2002 12:00 AM
"Dear parent or Guardian," the letter from the Hollister School District begins. "This year, your student was measured and weighed." The letter then lists the student's height, weight, body mass index and the weight percentile in which he or she falls. Other schools in California, and schools in Pennsylvania and Florida, are sending out similar letters -- to tell parents that their kids are, well, fat. An irate parent, who had received such a letter, called Lee Rodgers on KSFO radio's morning show to complain. The father was enraged that the school district warned him that his 5-foot-4-inch daughter, who weighs 160 pounds, "is heavier than 95 out of 100 children." Her dad told me he was shocked. "She's not a rail, but she's not carrying a paunch or anything. She's just a healthy 13-year-old girl," he said. She plays team sports. She's getting taller. He never told his daughter about the letter because: "That's grief that she doesn't need. She's got enough angst being a teen-ager." Hollister School District Superintendent Tom Andrade figured that the irate parent must be the one parent who complained last year. It's funny how you can call a school district on an issue that has driven parents wild, and administrators answer that no parents complained, or only one parent complained. No surprise: This was a different irate dad. Hollister School District nurse Anita Gallardo explained the program by saying: "Our goal is to identify potential problems that can impact learning, and impact current and future health." She added that that's no easy task with only two nurses serving 6,000 students. Gallardo said that the district has seen "a large influx of diabetic students," and noted the correlation between obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Last year, she said, 19 percent of Hollister district students were overweight -- that is, they were in the 95th percentile or higher -- while the number of students deemed too thin -- in the thinnest 5 percent -- has ranged from 1 percent to 3 percent. Nationally, the percentage of overweight children is up. The purpose of the letters, Gallardo explained, is to prompt families to take their children to a doctor. This is important, she said, because children who are "obese" when entering adolescence are four times more likely to be obese when they are adults. (Note that she said "obese," not overweight. In the Hollister girl's case, if she were 14 pounds lighter, or three inches taller, the body mass index table would not have judged her as overweight. An extra 16 pounds would have made her obese.) The district clearly means well, but here's why those letters are a bad idea. One, most parents know if their kids are overweight. They don't need to be told. Two, girls especially have a hard enough time dealing with impossible body images -- whether they come from Barbie or Sports Illustrated. Three, children have different body types. And some children experience a weight gain as their bodies change. They thin out as they grow taller. Four, being a little heavy doesn't mean that you're unhealthy, especially if you exercise. Five, the letters target not just obese students, but also overweight students. If school nurses decided to have a discreet word with the parents of morbidly obese students, they'd be within their rights -- because the child's health may be in danger. But writing to families about their children being overweight, when that judgment is based on incomplete statistics, well, that's just wrong. Six, schools are supposed to teach kids academics. You have to wonder if some schools are sending out Dear Parent of a Fat Kid letters in order to intimidate parents by telling them that they're failing as parents. Some parents will get angry, but others will be too ashamed to complain if their chunky kids, say, aren't reading at their grade level. It's ironic. After all those years of teachers complaining that low test scores can wound a child's self-esteem, school districts are sending out letters commenting on something as sensitive (and transient) as students' weight. Low blow.