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Report cards that tell parents their kids are overweight? How about phys ed classes instead?

February 02, 2007

CHILDREN HAVE YET another reason to dread report card day. Along with revealing how well students have mastered reading, writing and arithmetic, school systems are now using the cards to tell parents some bad news: Their children are too fat.

Obesity report cards, which typically include students' body mass index (BMI) -- a ratio calculated using height and weight -- are becoming an increasingly popular tool to address childhood obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is formulating guidelines for schools to follow when they mix their academic mission with a judgment on flab.

The news is often unwelcome. Irritated parents say they already have scales at home and do not need a school nurse to tell them the obvious. But, like it or not, the reality is that schools are often the first (and sometimes the last) public institution to provide needed services for a child's development, including basic information. Because childhood obesity is at epic proportions, the question for many districts is how best to spread the word.

In California, students' BMI is measured in grades 5, 7 and 9. But how (or even if) the information is passed along to parents is up to individual districts. The Los Angeles Unified School District does not send home BMI report cards. Whether obesity report cards are effective, however, is up in the air.

The obvious drawback is that making children self-conscious about their weight can cause as much harm as good. Obesity is a serious health problem, but so are anorexia and bulimia.

The best way to avoid shaming or confusing children would be for schools to send the information directly to parents, with clear guidelines on how to read the data and suggestions for improving the score. Printing a child's BMI on a report card next to grades is an invitation for playground abuse and misinterpretation. The New York Times recently wrote about a 6-year-old Pennsylvania girl who practically stopped eating after she misread a note telling her parents that her BMI was in the normal 80th percentile.

School districts can also help combat obesity by meeting their recommended state guidelines of providing 100 minutes a week of physical education for elementary students.

Ultimately, it's the parents who bear responsibility for their children's health. But giving them basic information, and their children the recommended amount of supervised exercise, is a reasonable and relatively inexpensive service for schools to provide.

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