Schools have long been involved with their students’ health. But one Pennsylvania school district crossed the line in sending letters to elementary and middle school parents about their children being "underweight," "at risk of becoming overweight" and "overweight."
The idea for sending the letters originated two years ago when school nurses approached George Ziolkowski, director of pupil personnel services for the East Penn school district in Lehigh County, regaling him with popular lore about health risks associated with childhood obesity.
Ziolkowski initially wasn’t convinced of the idea’s merits. He also knew the letters could turn into a political firestorm. But he eventually relented as the nurses persisted in bombarding him with "studies" and "statistics."
Ziolkowski should have stuck with his first impression. He should know that school nurses aren’t professionally qualified to evaluate scientific studies.
Childhood obesity is the latest rage among the more meddlesome in the public health bureaucracy. The fad is fueled by dubious data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls childhood obesity a "public health epidemic." The CDC claims the percentage of children and adolescents defined as overweight more than doubled since the early 1970s.
It's not clear, though, that an "epidemic" can be inferred from a statistical analysis of very limited data about the height and weight of rapidly growing 4- to 12-year-olds. More importantly, the researchers did not report any "epidemic" of health problems among the children studied.
The CDC asserts — without supporting scientific reference — that "overweight children and adolescents are more likely to become overweight or obese adults." This claim, however, is challenged by a recent study in the British Medical Journal that studied a group of children from birth in 1947 to age 50.
The researchers reported, "Little tracking from childhood overweight to adulthood obesity was found … No excess adult health risk from childhood or teenage overweight was found. Being thin in childhood offered no protection against adult fatness, and the thinnest children tended to have the highest adult risk at every level of adult obesity."
The trigger for sending the letters was a child’s body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight to height. But use of the BMI to identify overweight individuals is controversial. It does not take into account body type.
Under the BMI method, athletic or "husky" individuals are classified as overweight when, in fact, they aren’t. One parent receiving a letter from the school district described her son, who is extremely active in tae kwon do, basketball and baseball, as "solid," not fat.
Moreover, BMI is not an indicator of health. The mere fact of being "overweight" does not sicken or kill otherwise healthy children. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of kids, merely being overweight is not a definite indicator of current or even future health problems.
None of this is to say that schools shouldn’t be involved in children’s health. Schools were a good place to inoculate children against measles — a real public health matter.
School districts test students’ vision and hearing — physical capabilities related to learning. Schools may offer health classes where kids learn about sex and other health issues. But these classes do not involve health exams or otherwise intrusively singling students out.
Society has been reluctant to let schools get involved in aspects of children’s health not directly related to learning. Schools are generally not allowed, for example, to test kids for drug or alcohol use — a far more serious health issue than body weight.
Schools should also know better than to set up kids for psychological torment by siblings and classmates about getting "fatty letters."
Schools should focus on educating children — a difficult enough assignment for many school systems. Leave children’s weight management to parents and trained health professionals.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com , an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).