BOSTON — Schools would no longer have to notify parents of their child’s body mass index (BMI) score and the potential health risks associated with being overweight or obese, under a proposed rule change recommended by the Patrick administration.
Public officials say the four-year-old program of collecting student BMI scores has provided valuable information to the state for targeting populations at risk of obesity, but suggest that the uneven implementation of the parental notification requirement has led to bullying, increasing stigma around weight issues and concerns about body image, particularly among adolescent girls.
Adopted in 2009 as part of an effort to combat childhood obesity, the current regulations have led to increased reporting of height, weight and BMI by local school districts to the state and their implementation has come during a period featuring a slight decline in obesity rates. Concerns about bullying and questions about the effectiveness of the notification requirements have also cropped up in communities around the state.
New regulations under review by the Department of Public Health would remove the requirement that schools send letters to parents notifying them of their child’s BMI score, instead leaving it up to local school boards if they want to continue the practice.
Body mass index statistics would still be collected and reported to the state in grades 1, 4, 7 and 10.
“The most recent evidence found that while BMI screening itself may have benefits, parental notification itself does not have an impact on reducing pediatric obesity,” said Carlene Pavlos, interim director of the Bureau of Community Health and Prevention.
Pavlos last week presented the revised regulations to the Public Health Council, and encountered concerns from members who couldn’t understand why the department would err on the side of sharing less information with parents.
“That’s not an issue of the policy but the application of the policy and that something that can be easily fixed,” councilor Paul Lanzikos said. He also said he would like to hear how lawmakers on Beacon Hill felt about the current program and the proposed change, in case the council’s actions could be negated by a statutory change.
Pavlos said that some school districts have opted against sending letters home to all parents, and instead deliver letters directly to students whose BMI scores pose a risk. Receiving one of these letters in front of peers can lead to bullying, she said.
New DPH Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett told the council that the proposed regulatory changes could quiet some of the opposition in the Legislature generated by controversies among parents in some communities over the letters.
“This has been a lightning rod for them in the Legislature so we think this will certainly settle things down,” Bartlett said.
Administration officials also say that many school districts say they don’t have the resources to send letters home to every parent, and the DPH doesn’t have the capacity to monitor whether school districts are adequately protecting student privacy.
Rep. Jim Lyons, an Andover Republican, has filed legislation this session (H 2024) that would prohibit the Department of Public Health from collecting data on students relative to height, weight and body mass indexes.
The bill was filed on behalf of a constituent in North Andover whose son received a letter from his school about a problematic BMI score, even though Lyons said he is an athlete and in shape. Doctors on the Public Health Council acknowledge that BMI indexes often fail to account for athletes who may be more muscular than their peers.
“I would certainly be in support of giving the local committee control of what they do with it. The bigger question in my mind is what the big advantages are to doing it. It seems the Department of Public Health has a number of issues they should be focusing on and this isn’t at the top of their list of priorities,” Lyons said.
Lyons, who said he was also concerned about the financial burden on school districts from the mandate, said he would consider backing off his bill if the regulatory changes satisfy his concerns. The bill has not yet had a hearing before the Committee on Public Health.
“That would certainly be a first step. I’d have to think about it.” Lyons said.
According to DPH, a 2011 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that informing parents of their child’s weight status had little statistical impact on incidences of pediatric obesity.
Currently, 21 states require schools to collect BMI data on students, but only nine require parental notification.
Dr. Michele David, a health council member, said providing access to healthy foods and lifestyles in communities across the state is a better way to change behavior and motivate weight loss than simply reporting a BMI score.
“I think notifying the parent and child is not as important,” David said.
Dr. Harold Cox, a member of the Public Health Council, said he was bothered by the idea of sharing less information with parents, suggesting there could be an alternative that would protect the privacy of students without jeopardizing transparency.
“Collecting data is good for us, but it doesn’t address the concern of giving parents information to address the needs of their children,” Cox said.
Dr. Alan Woodward, another council member, recommended studying how other states enforce their parental notification requirements to see how they might have addressed similar community concerns. “I recognize the political necessity of some change here,” Woodward said.
The council last week voted to delay a vote to adopt the new regulations by a month, pushing the public hearing into September and the vote to the October meeting. The change will give parents a better opportunity to participate in the comment period after summer vacations.