Md. Bills Would Put Schools on the Scales

Sixth-graders Alexandra Wasser, left, Rabia Hyat and Arnold Olali work out during PE at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg.
Sixth-graders Alexandra Wasser, left, Rabia Hyat and Arnold Olali work out during PE at Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

They've tried to switch off vending machines during the school day and restrict the size of potato chip bags. Now, Maryland lawmakers are seeking a more direct approach to fight obesity among schoolchildren: a weigh-in.

Two bills being studied in the state Senate would require public schools to evaluate students using the body mass index, a formula that estimates body fat based on height and weight. One of the proposals even calls for sending home the results with report cards -- essentially, a fat grade.

An unlikely alliance has formed against the measures. Eating-disorder specialists are allied with snack-food purveyors, as well as physicians and school board members, who contend such bills usurp their authority.

"I don't think it's something that the school should have any business doing," said Anya Lamb, 18, a senior at Severna Park High School in Anne Arundel County. "I know people who developed eating disorders in middle school. The pressure is already there."

One of the bills, introduced by Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), would require body mass and diabetes screenings at the same time that students are checked for scoliosis -- typically in middle school. Notes would go home to parents of students whose body mass index falls at the upper or lower extremes.

The other bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Gwendolyn T. Britt and Gloria G. Lawlah, Prince George's Democrats, would measure the body mass of students in the first, third, fifth and eighth grades and send a "health report card" to all parents along with regular grades.

Both measures specify that results would be confidential and delivered with explanatory materials and that parents would be permitted to opt out.

A bill requiring body mass readings was introduced this year in the Virginia legislature by Del. Robert D. "Bobby" Orrock Sr. (R-Caroline). It died in committee, Orrock said, after protest from the Virginia School Boards Association, which argued that the screening was too costly.

Many Virginia schools measure the height and weight of students -- the two main components of the body mass index -- but the information isn't used to estimate body fat.

Maryland schools generally do not conduct such measurements, and opponents of the bills have dwelled on the potential for humiliation in herding students onto scales.

Although the sponsors of the Maryland bills say it's unlikely the bills will be adopted as written, their existence has sparked spirited discussion in the halls of state government about whether a child's weight and body type are any business of the public schools.

The potential danger in measuring body fat is "setting up children to compare their size and their shape more than they already are," said Ovidio Bermudez, president-elect of the National Eating Disorders Association.

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