The Massachusetts Public Health Council unanimously approved regulations last Wednesday that require public schools to send children’s Body Mass Index (BMI) measurements home to parents.
The new regulations, part of a larger statewide initiative called “Mass in Motion” that is designed to fight rising obesity rates, will have schools calculate students’ heights and weights into a BMI.
The results will be sent home to parents for students in first, fourth, seventh and 10th grades in a package explaining what they mean and how parents can best combat obesity. Parents will be able to opt out.
The new rules will replace the current process of weighing children every year. Eighteen other states require a BMI calculation, but Massachusetts joins a smaller list of states, including Arkansas, that require schools to notify parents about it.
Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach characterized the childhood obesity problem in Massachusetts as “very severe,” with one-third of children overweight or obese. By explaining BMI calculations to parents, including resources on proper nutrition and exercise and partnering with pediatricians, Auerbach said he hopes to help reduce that rate.
“This is about giving to parents the tools necessary for them to ensure that their children are as healthy as they can be,” Auerbach said.
Public health officials in Cambridge, where schools have been sending home BMI calculations since 2003, said parents’ feedback has been positive.
“Parents do want to get this information and they’re more likely to change eating habits and physical activity,” said Jose Wendel, nutrition coordinator for the Cambridge Public Health Department’s School Health Program. “It’s an effort to improve the role of the schools and help parents support their children in achieving a healthy lifestyle.”
The Multiservice Eating Disorders Association, a group dedicated to preventing and treating eating disorders, raised concerns about the state regulations during the public hearing period because of the potential for negative body image and parent responses. The concerns led officials to strengthen privacy and confidentiality provisions and work on language, such as not calling the calculation a “score.”
But Rebecca Manley, the association’s founder, said the sensitivity guidelines aren’t enough.
“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had clients in our office and they said the start of their eating disorder was being weighed and measured in school,” said Manley. “It is the role of the child’s primary care physician and not the role of the school to perform this.
“What would you do if you received a report card saying your child is at risk of becoming obese?” Manley continued. “My sense is your knee-jerk reaction would be to cut your kid’s caloric intake or even put them on a diet.”
Still, health officials noted the regulations were praised by numerous groups, including the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Massachusetts School Nurse Organization.
The new regulations will be phased into schools over the next 18 months.
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Massachusetts government officials recently unveiled a plan to tackle obesity after a Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation study revealed that nearly a third of the state’s school-aged kids are overweight or obese. More »