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Helpful or hurtful? Schools mail out 'fat letters'

  • Parents not happy athletic son labeled 'obese' by BMI test
  • Mass. tests students' BMI in 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th grades
  • State reports 32% of students are overweight or obese
Helpful or hurtful? Schools mail out 'fat letters'
44% No, they are helpful
56% Yes, they are hurtful
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A copy of the letter Massachusetts parents receive.

It's a tricky thing, trying to parent somebody else's kid. It's rarely (OK, never) appreciated, but what if the message you need to send is actually important -- and not just, "Maybe if your Noah went to bed earlier he'd do better in our baseball games"?

Well, a Massachusetts school is learning a letter in the mail flagging a child as obese is not always the best way to alert parents to a potential weight and health problem.

The parents of 10-year-old Cameron Watson told WFXT they were offended after receiving a letter from his school that labeled Cameron as obese, based on state-mandated Body Mass Index testing. They say despite a score which landed him in the 95th percentile, Cameron plays football, practices martial arts and is preparing to wrestle in a state tournament this weekend at 95 pounds. In other words, they feel like the test has mislabeled -- and branded -- their son.

Tracy Watson told the station that after the so-called "fat letters" (view one here) went out, "There were a number of children that, you know, went to bed not feeling great about themselves that night. And that bothered me." So the Massachusetts selectwoman has filed with the state to end BMI screenings in Massachusetts schools, which are usually conducted when a student is in 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th grades. Parents can currently opt-out of the testing if they don't want to participate.

A statement posted on the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's website points out that "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." The department also told WXFT that "BMI screenings are intended to raise parents' awareness about the issue."

The state reports 32% of students tested qualified as overweight or obese.

Which brings us back to the part about it being difficult to raise concerns about other people's children. The state says the screenings "are intended to raise parents' awareness", a worthy goal and nothing personal. This is merely: "Hey we ran a test. Your child fell into this range. Here's a letter with the results to let you know."

Still, as feelings may be bruised and BMI is far from flawless as a measure of overall health, do you agree with mandated BMI testing and mailing results to parents of students determined to be at-risk? Is the practice helpful or harmful?

Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN

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