White Coat Notes

Massachusetts scraps controversial student obesity letters

Public health officials voted Wednesday to scrap controversial letters that Massachusetts public schools send parents about their children’s weight, following widespread criticism that the practice led to bullying and excessive costs for schools.

But schools will be required to continue student weight and height screenings in grades 1 ,4, 7, and 10, to help officials gather data about childhood obesity trends and identify possible system-wide solutions.

The vote by the Public Health Council, an appointed body of academics and health advocates that sets regulations, ends one of the most contentious portions of a four-year-old state program aimed at reversing the obesity epidemic.

Nearly a third of all US children are overweight or obese.

“The data we have collected through this core initiative has been key to our success,” said Carlene Pavlos, director of the state health department bureau that runs the screening program. Pavlos said that in a later interview that the percentage of students who are overweight or obese dropped 3.7 percentage points, to 30.6 percent, between 2009 and 2013.

Schools complained that it was too expensive to mail the letters as required, so they often sent them home in students’ backpacks. That sometimes led to inadvertent disclosure of the information to other students and teasing, officials have said.

In addition, such letters, intended to foster conversations between parents and their child’s physician about weight and exercise, appear not to help stem childhood obesity rates, according to a 2011 study of a similar program in the California public schools.

The new rules eliminate the required parental notification and instead, allow school districts to make the information available to parents or guardians upon written request.

To address lingering concerns from parents, regulators added a provision that will allow local school committees or boards of health to adopt extra requirements to “ensure confidentiality.”

The state Department of Public Health solicited public comments last month about the proposed changes and received 16 written responses, including nine from various health organizations that supported the action. Two people, including a longtime school nurse, urged regulators to stick with parental notification.

“Not all parents may be aware that their child may be reaching an unhealthy weight status and by not providing this information as it is collected increases the likelihood that the child will continue increasing in weight,” wrote M. Laurette Hughes, a registered nurse who said she worked for 15 years in school districts in Vermont and Boston.

Massachusetts is one of 21 states that routinely measure school-aged children’s weight and height, according to the health department, but only nine of those states, including Massachusetts until now, sent letters home.

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