Legal Articles

September 2, 2013

Obesity letters spark controversy in childhood obesity debate

Parents receive all kinds of notifications from their children’s schools: grade reports, truancy and tardiness statistics, behavior accounts, etc. One letter you probably wouldn’t expect is what some have christened the “fat letter.” It is school’s most recent tool in the war they wage on childhood obesity.

Obesity as a serious threat

More than just a recurring nuisance, childhood obesity is a serious threat to the rising generation’s health. It is linked with a number of serious conditions in childhood and adulthood and, according to Michael Flaherty, pediatric resident physician in the department of pediatrics at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., it threatens to reduce kids’ life expectancy. “Obesity is an epidemic in our country,” he said, “and one that is compromising the health and life expectancy of our children. We must embrace any way possible to raise awareness of these concerns and to bring down the stigmas associated with obesity so that our children may grow to lead healthy adult lives.”

The statistics are sobering. Today, the number of kids classified as obese is three times that of the number in 1980. As obesity numbers rise, other problems do as well, including heart disease, sleep apnea, joint issues, and asthma.

Schools collect health information

There are now 21 states that mandate weight screening. Schools are required to collect information on students’ height, weight, and/or BMI. Some, but not all of these states, also require parents be notified of the weight screening results. Some parents think the “fat letter” policy is taking legislation too far. They believe schools shouldn’t be allowed to intrude into such private matters. There are worries that should the information get out, kids will be bullied or develop eating disorders.

Dr. Flaherty, however, thinks a change in policy would be a mistake because, “The growing number of children and adolescents seen day in and day out in our clinics with hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and musculoskeletal issues secondary to weight do not lie.”

Letters need to do more

Another doctor, Dr. David Dunkin, assistant professor of pediatric gastroenterology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, believes the letters are a good idea, but one that is implemented ineffectually. He believes it would be better if the letter was accompanied with a recommendation for programs that would help the students make the necessary lifestyle changes.


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