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Md. Bills Would Put Schools on the Scales
'Fat Grade' Among Ideas Under Review

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006; C01

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.

Lawmakers will meet in the next few days to decide whether to combine or modify the bills to make them more politically viable, Pinsky said.

Pinsky, a former high school history teacher, said the backlash generated by his legislation took him by surprise. "Some people are in avoidance," he said.

His bill also includes language that would ban the sale of vending-machine junk food during school hours and restrict items heavy in sugar or fat, reprising a theme of earlier legislation. Although 17 of 24 Maryland school systems are voluntarily switching off their vending machines for parts of the school day, Pinsky said, "I want to shut that door permanently."

Local school boards have opposed school-nutrition legislation, noting that the Maryland State Board of Education has voluntarily raised the nutritional standards of campus dining.

Britt has another bill that would gradually increase the time devoted to physical education in elementary schools to 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes a day.

Squeezed by increasing academic demands and reluctant to lengthen the instructional day, Maryland schools have compressed gym instruction to as little as 20 minutes a week, Britt said.

Should either of the body mass bills become law, Maryland would join a few other states, including Pennsylvania and Arkansas, that have adopted height-weight screenings.

Pennsylvania elementary schools began statewide body mass screenings in the fall, expanding on a pilot program that drew few complaints after an initial burst of outrage over "what people called the 'fat letter,' for lack of a better term," said Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

"There's going to be a lot of talk about it. People are going to be comparing their weights," said Harry Brandt, director of the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Baltimore, who has testified against Pinsky's bill.

Rochelle McConkie, a senior at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, applauded the crusade for fitness but wondered how a schoolwide weigh-in might go over among her friends.

"A lot of people, especially girls at this age, are sensitive about their weight," she said. [Maybe they would lose weight or lives--Mother Nature doen't care--RSB]
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