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Step lightly when weighing students

A few weeks ago we reported that schools in Georgia will have to change their mantras to “reading, writing, weighing and arithmetic.”

In Georgia, the SHAPE plan requires that PE teachers begin computing a body mass index to determine a student’s fitness. The information will be sent home with health tips in a “fitnessgram.”

This was one of our most discussed articles lately. The majority of the responses were negative, along the line of, “It’s not the state’s business to weigh kids.” But a vocal minority felt something must be done to combat childhood obesity if parents won’t do it themselves.

Both points of view are valid. And we  have arrived at a fence-straddling position honestly. There are many pros and cons with the weight assessments.

Ideally body fat isn’t something to be handled in the schools. In a utopia, parents provide veggies on the dinner table and use sharp sticks if necessary to get kids off the couch. But in reality, this doesn’t happen any more often than parents see to it that their kids reach kindergarten having been read to, enter high school with respect for teachers, or have structured environments to complete homework.

In theory, we agree schools shouldn’t be weighing students. In practice, however, public education may be the best avenue to address childhood obesity.

Assistant Superintendent Tommy Qualls noted in our original article that when he went to school report cards included the height and weight of the student, and it was no big deal.

Times have changed. In the first place, people have grown more sensitive about body issues, and they have reason to be more sensitive. The Institute of Medicine found childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past four decades.

In decades past, kids ate less fast food and got more exercise.  “In 1968, 80 percent of kids were active in sport activities everyday. That number is now 20 percent,” according to Helping Hands Outreach.

Putting height and weight on report cards wasn’t a big deal in our assistant superintendent’s day, as obesity among children wasn’t much of a problem then.

Now the problem is pronounced. Georgia is the second worst state in the nation for childhood obesity with 21 percent of kids here considered obese (Mississippi is number one).

And lest anyone think this is only about kids looking good in skinny jeans, Helping Hands Outreach found, “The calorie-dense, fatty, salt diet eaten by American children, combined with the serious lack of physical activity means that 25 percent of kids under 10 years of age have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or some other contributor of heart disease.  A new report has issued a stark warning that children’s lives will be shorter than their parent’s if this trend continues.”

Clearly this is an acute statewide problem that should be addressed. But, like those opposed to weigh-ins, we question whether commandeering campus time through mandatory requirements is the best approach. As noted by administrators and PE teachers, the tests will give parents a weight number and information. Seeing that healthier regimes are followed ultimately falls on parents who may ignore, get angry about or trash the fitnessgram.

Without getting parents on board, the tests will do nothing but hurt feelings. We also question the unintended consequences of school enforced weigh-ins. Will the results be something parents use to make changes, or will they just become ammunition for bullies? Even if weights are recorded in private, the fact that all students know the weigh-ins dates will lead to anxiety for obese students and the opportunity for insulting questions.

As the Pickens High PE teacher interviewed for the article expressed, we’ll hope that this program produces a community-wide increase in fitness and nutrition. For the kids’ sakes, it’s needed. But if this program isn’t well administered, it has the potential to devastate some students and produce no benefits for those who need it.

Georgia needs to tread lightly on this scale.


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