Weight Grade on Report Cards Angers Parents

One Wyoming school district is grading its students' body mass index.

Aug. 27, 2007 — -- A survey released today by the Trust for America's Health reported that the rate of childhood obesity more than tripled from 1980 to 2004, and that approximately 25 million children are obese or overweight. One school is trying to do something to reverse that trend, but not everyone is happy about it.

Four times during the school year in Campbell County, Wyo., the school sends report cards home. Anxious parents and worried students are provided with the typical grading categories -- academic performance, attendance and a work ethic score.

But here in Gillette, there's an additional grade that has some families up in arms.

It's called the body mass index, or BMI, a calculation based on height and weight that indicates whether your kid is too fat. The school chooses the word "overweight." If your child scores too high, it's the fitness equivalent of a bad grade.

When Taylor Barbour came home with a BMI score of 32, seven points over the "normal range," his mother, Rosie Barbour, was none too pleased. Her anger was directed not at her 12-year-old son but at the school.

"It just doesn't have any place in the school," said Barbour. "It's fine if you want to teach them how to eat healthy, and make better choices during health class, but I don't think giving them BMI on their report card" is the answer.

'The Strong Kids Club'

On top of that, the school district sent a letter in the mail inviting Taylor -- and 172 other kids with high BMI scores -- to join an exercise program three times of week. It's called the Strong Kids Club and came free to his family, with a promise that "it will be fun."

Barbour found nothing "fun" about the invitation. "We were quite angry," she said. "[It] implied that the entire family needed help. And they don't know the family's situation."

Dr. Dave Fall, the chairman of the Campbell County School Board, contends that the offer was not intended to offend anyone. Since 2004, Fall, who is also a pediatrician, has spearheaded a movement, trying to whip the kids of Cambell County into shape. "We're not trying to hurt anyone's feelings, but we just want them to have the information," he said.

Fall has been practicing in the county for more than two decades and has seen at least half the childhood population come through his waiting room at one time or another. It is his opinion that a lot of Campbell County kids have a weight problem.

"I looked at my own practice. We looked at 200 consecutive kids, from age 2 on," said Fall. "We went from 2 to 5, and then 5 to whatever, and I found a rate of about 15 percent overweight, and that was about three or four years ago."

No Second Helpings

Fall said the trend has moved in the wrong direction, with kids getting heavier still.

"Nightline" visited a school in Gillette, Wagonwheel Elementary, which teaches kids from kindergarten through sixth grade, to get a look at the full range of changes the school district has put in place under Fall's leadership.

Dave Freeland, the school's principal, has a jar of treats in his office. He doesn't think it's bad for someone in his position to hand out a piece of candy on the occasional birthday.

But once lunchtime comes, Freeland is the chief enforcer of the new nutrition rules the school board ordered. No soft drinks are allowed or available, and there is only one serving per person of the main course. Actually, there are no seconds at all, except for fruits and vegetables.

On this particular lunch day, there was a table of kindergartners happily chomping on raw broccoli. "It's good for you," they exclaimed.

BMI: Quick, Easy, Inaccurate?

Jim Coca, the physical education teacher at Wagon Wheel Elementary, said the health of his students is being measured by a the wrong yardstick.

"I disagree with body mass index," said Coca. "We're using it as a body fat index and that's not what it is. I've seen inconsistencies when I'm doing it with my kids. It's quick and easy, but I think it's inaccurate."

Coca said the research he has done on BMI has shown some inconsistencies. "A student with a high body mass index could be obese, but he could also be muscular. Over the research I've done, I've also found out that … a student in the normal range, could have a high percent of body fat and not be carrying muscle, and still be considered normal. So, I see inconsistencies in both directions."

"Well, if you look at the BMI report, it isn't 100 percent accurate," Fall admitted. "No question about it. I think if you're using it for aggregate data, like we're using it, or you're using it to point out that this child may have a problem and then we want them to go in and get a complete package done on the wellness machine we have for kids … it's fine."

Fine, unless it's misleading, Barbour argues. And she says her son Taylor, though on the bigger side, is fit.

Healthy Kids Make Healthier Grades

Still, why argue against kids eating broccoli? Or kids getting exercise? Of the more than 200 families invited to send their kids to the free workout program based on their BMI results, eight have accepted the offer.

Barbour is not one of them. "I think my anger is over pinpointing. I think if it would have been offered to everybody, schoolwide, and first come, first serve, the kids that wanted to participate, I wouldn't have had a problem with that. But by pinpointing the kids, and the issues we've been through in the past, I just didn't want to go back there."

In the end, Fall said healthy kids make better students. "It is an academic issue, and an education issue, in my opinion. And that's why putting it on the report card, I think, is the right thing to do."

This report originally aired on May 8, 2007.