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Schools might end letters on obesity

Controversial letters that Massachusetts public schools send parents about their children’s weight may be scrapped because of concerns about bullying and cost, state public health officials said Wednesday.

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

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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.

“If it is not an evidence-based strategy that we are doing, and there has been some anecdotal evidence that it may cause harm, then we need to reevaluate whether it makes sense to keep doing it,” state public health commissioner Cheryl Bartlett said in an interview.

Bartlett’s department is recommending that the weight and height screenings of students in grades 1, 4, 7, and 10 continue because the program has helped officials gather valuable data to monitor trends in childhood obesity and identify possible system-wide solutions.

But the department is suggesting that the required parental notification be eliminated and instead allow the information to be available to parents or guardians upon request to their school district. Schools would be allowed to continue with the parental notification by mail on a voluntary basis.

“We are giving more local and parental control to this information,” Bartlett said.

The department’s recommendations will go to a public hearing in September before a vote by the Public Health Council, an appointed body of academics and health advocates that sets regulations.

Massachusetts began requiring schools to measure students’ height and weight in 2009, and to notify parents of the results, as part of a larger campaign aimed at reversing a growing obesity epidemic. Nearly a third of all US children are overweight or obese.

Bartlett said that most Massachusetts schools, roughly 90 percent, are doing a good job screening their students and reporting the information to her department. The department’s data also show some progress in battling the bulge, with the percentage of children who are overweight or obese dropping from about 34 percent to 32 percent between 2009 and 2011 in communities that screened and adopted other comprehensive programs to improve nutrition and boost exercise.

“We determined that the letters were distracting, and what we really want to do is focus on surveillance and trends so we can focus our attention on the communities where we can have the most impact,” Bartlett said.

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

Bartlett said the letters have been “disturbing to parents,” especially those who received notification that their child was overweight when in fact the student was athletic. Muscles can be heavier than fat.

The program has been controversial from the start, but typically complaints about programs die down over time, Bartlett said. Not this one.

“We implemented it with a lot of noise, and the noise is getting louder in terms of the parental notification piece,” Bartlett said.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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