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Ohio teen 'devastated' by school 'fat letter' takes issue to the state legislature

Arkansas Two decades ago, Arkansas was the first state to require reports sent to parents, informally dubbed “fat letters,” that rate how children’s body mass indexes compare with those of other students their age. 

At the time, the obesity rate for children in Arkansas was 17%, according to the advocacy group Conscien Health. Since then, obesity in Arkansas public school students has risen dramatically. In the 2021-22 school year, it hit a record – 26%.

 

In 2007, then Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe said the school weigh-ins and report cards had “a lot of negative, unintended consequences” and hurt some children’s self-esteem.

"In the 6th grade, my daughter received a letter addressed to her from school," shared Ohio mother Nicole Eller. "They had lined up all the children in the gym, and made them step on a scale in front of each other. The parents were not aware this was happening. My daughter, who was a scholar student, shredded her report and threw letter that used the word "fat" in it. I waited three hours for her come out of her bedroom because she was devastated. There was no call, no nurse was involved... it was all to the children. More than 600 letters went out in our district."

Eller's daughter Maddy was so incensed by the ordeal that she took the issue to the state legislature. 

Multiple studies have indicated the reports have had no effect on weight loss. And some nutritionists, psychologists, and parents have criticized the letters, saying they can lead to weight stigma and eating disorders.

“As a culture, we’re not very good at receiving information that’s blasted to us, which is why going to your pediatrician is more collaborative than just some random letter you get in the mail,” said pediatrician Brian Dixon, MD. “These letters put people on the defensive and then we kind of digging our heels in. Even though the intent may have been pure and helpful, it may not come across that way.”

Eller agrees, saying "It should be between the pediatricians and the parents. It should not be exploited through our children with no care about the process."

A least 23 states followed Arkansas' lead and required height and weight assessments of students. But some have since scaled back their efforts after parents raised concerns. For example, Massachusetts dropped its statewide program after three years, citing concerns about confidentiality and its inability to monitor how schools communicated the information to parents.

Despite the controversy, other research suggests some parents do want the letters.

 

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