Don't label school kids 'obese,' Massachusetts lawmakers say

The two lawmakers worry that letters to parents from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health can create self-esteem issues for children.

Massachusetts authorities, who say that 32 percent of the state's students are overweight or obese, routinely send children home with letters classifying their weight in not-so-gentle terms.

Two Massachusetts state legislators want to end the practice of sending the notes — nicknamed "fat letters" — home to parents that list their child's body mass index and, in some cases, define them as "obese."

Rep. Jim Lyons, a Republican, and Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives, a Democrat, have filed legislation to end Massachusetts' "BMI Initiative," which was established in 2009 to help parents recognize when their children are overweight or underweight.

The program determines a child's body mass index — a figure found by measuring height and weight — and places their score into one of four categories: underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese. When the initiative started, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health set out to determine indexes for first-, fourth-, seventh- and 10th-graders. The figure and categorization are then sent to students' parents with the recommendation that they speak with a health professional about their child's weight if it did not fall in the normal range.

The letter acknowledges that BMI "does not tell the whole story" about an individual's weight. Families can also opt out of the screening process.

The BMI Initiative rankles parents every year, many of whom complain publicly. One outraged parent, North Andover selectman Tracy Watson, recently grabbed the attention of Lyons and Ives. Watson's 10-year-old son, Cameron, was given a letter indicating that his 95-pound frame was "obese."

 "Honestly, I laughed," Watson told the North Andover Patch about receiving the note. She said Cameron is a devoted athlete who's very muscular and participates in wrestling, football and martial arts.

She told Fox 25 News that she wouldn’t want other children going to sleep with self-esteem issues because a piece of paper and the State of Massachusetts say they're obese when in fact they're quite healthy. Bridget Martin, also of North Andover, says the distinctions are far too myopic and shaming.

"Some of these children laughed at these letters stating that they are obese because they know it is ridiculous," Martin told Patch, "while others become upset, depressed and ashamed, even though they are far from obese."

Lyons agrees with the two parents that the letters can create self-esteem issues for children, especially when the messages are given to the child to take home and not sent directly to the parents.

"I've had numerous complaints from parents considering the impact this has on children being ostracized for being too thin or too fat. Parents are really concerned," he told the New York Daily News.

Lyons also thinks the BMI Initiative is part of a larger, more worrying pattern of overreach by the state's Department of Public Health.

"It goes to a larger problem, the Department of Public Health is losing sight of what its focus is and expanding too many areas," Lyons told Patch. "I don't think it [a child's BMI] is something that parents need to be told through a school department."

Lyons said he would rather see the state's health departments inspecting its crime and pharmaceutical labs. Massachusetts recently was besmirched by scandals involving both.

Last year, a Framingham compounding pharmacy was linked to 39 meningitis deaths nationwide. Investigators found mold and contamination when they visited in October.

Also last year, state crime lab technician Annie Dookhan was indicted for faking drug results, forging paperwork and mixing samples. Her tainted work helped indict over 1,000 inmates, who could now be released as a result of the potentially faulty evidence.

To end the BMI program and refocus Massachusetts' health agencies, Lyons and Ives are seeking to insert the following into Massachusetts' General Laws: "No language in this section shall authorize the Department of Public Health to collect data on height, weight or calculate a student’s body mass index."

Ives said Massachusetts could undertake less shaming methods to teach nutrition and inform parents if their child has a weight problem.  

"I think that there are tools that schools can use independently to inform parents about that [childhood obesity] being a public health issue for children without targeting individual children and putting them into these categories…" she told Patch.

Following the recent outcry, the Department of Public Health issued a statement saying, "Children with high BMI are more likely to become overweight or obese adults and be at a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Helping children maintain a healthy weight may prevent serious illness later in life. BMI screenings are intended to raise parents' awareness about the issue."

Currently, according to the Daily News, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York have similar student weight monitoring programs.  

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