Charlottesville parents are registering their children for the 2023-24 school year. For the most part, it’s pretty standard stuff: updating records, requesting bus service.
But one of the questions being asked during registration is raising some eyebrows.
“I do not think @CvilleSchools should be weighing students,” Charlottesville resident Matthew Gillikin tweeted on Wednesday. “It’s not their business and there’s a host of problems that come from this. Hard no from me when registering my kids.”
Gillikin shared a screenshot of the registration form asking parents to give permission for their child’s height, weight and BMI, or body mass index, to be privately measured during physical education class once a year.
“Nationally and regionally, schools collect summary — not individual — data for health research, and locally, we use summary data to support grants that fund health initiatives,” the form reads.
Parents are able to agree or disagree.
Charlottesville City Schools has maintained that the data is used to benefit health research and local health initiatives, but the tweet this past week, and others like it, garnered comments from several concerned parents who said they are uncomfortable with the school division keeping and using records on their children’s weight.
It’s not the first time this has happened.
One parent, Christa Bennett, told The Daily Progress her daughter was weighed at school while attending Jackson-Via Elementary School years ago. The principal and other parents weren’t even aware it was occurring, she said.
While attending a parent-principal meeting during the summer of 2013, Bennett said she asked if students were being weighed at school.
“I actually asked, ‘Are students weighed at school?’ and the rest of the parents laughed. Of course, they weren’t being mean, but they just thought it was just a preposterous idea that this had happened.”
The principal said the practice wasn’t happening, according to Bennett, but a few weeks later her daughter experienced otherwise.
“The principal assured me that, no, they weren’t being weighed at school, and then a few weeks later, after my daughter had started kindergarten, she comes home and tells me that she got weighed at school, that you step on a scale like you at the doctor’s,” Bennett said.
Searching for answers, Bennett took her inquiry to the school board and superintendent.
“The principal at the time was very wonderful in her response when she said, ‘I’m so sorry, didn’t realize this was happening,’ and so that’s sort of what put me on a mission to figure out where this was coming from, and that’s when I took it to the school board and the superintendent to look at this practice,” Bennett said.
Bennett started a petition in May 2017, which garnered 222 signatures, to stop weigh-ins within Charlottesville City Schools.
But even with hundreds of supporters behind her, Bennet’s mission failed.
At a Charlottesville School Board meeting on Sept. 7, 2017, James Herndon, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, and Patrick Johnson, health and physical education coordinator, presented a wellness policy to the board that included BMI assessments for children.
The policy was adopted.
That policy requires that students’ BMI be taken without using students’ names and be assessed in a private area. P.E. teachers are trained and aided in the practice by an additional adult, who also helps with class while assessments are being made.
School division spokeswoman Amanda Korman told The Daily Progress that parents always have the choice to opt their children out but that the anonymized data is actually put to good use.
“The collection of this summary data supports health research and local health initiatives that benefit our students,” Korman said in an email. “However, we understand there are parents who for a variety of reasons would prefer their student’s height and weight not be measured at school. That is why we include this question — to give parents and students the ability to opt out before the school year starts.”
The benefits of measuring students’ BMI at school are up for debate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is not enough evidence to determine the effect of school-based BMI measurement programs.
“To date, there is not enough evidence for scientists to conclude whether school-based body mass index measurement programs are effective at preventing or reducing childhood obesity or whether they cause harm, by either increasing the stigma attached to obesity or increasing pressures to engage in unsafe weight control behaviors,” according to a 2022 CDC report on BMI assessments in schools. “To minimize the risk for potential negative consequences, schools that measure students’ heights and weights can follow safeguards.”
Those safeguards include requesting parental consent, training the staff responsible for the assessment and keeping the setting of the assessment private, among others.
Charlottesville City Schools includes all of those safeguards in its wellness policy, but some parents say it’s about more than privacy. It’s about self-esteem.
“I am concerned that children being weighed at school could contribute to weight bias or a child’s negative self-perception surrounding weight,” Elizabeth Turner, a mother of two Johnson Elementary students, told The Daily Progress via email.
Turner said she was not aware students were being weighed at schools at all.
“At home, we don’t discuss weight as a measure of our children’s health,” Turner said. “I worry that if they perceive this information is important to teachers, they may begin to worry about their own weight in a negative way, or kids may begin to compare themselves to one another which could facilitate weight-based bullying, and these experiences can have lasting health consequences.”
While Turner said she supports the school division allowing parents to opt their children out of the assessments, she agrees with Bennett that the practice should be eliminated altogether.
Korman, with the school division, said she wanted to make it clear that Charlottesville City Schools is listening to parents’ concerns.
“We’re always listening to community feedback, and working with our community partners, to determine best practices within our schools,” she said.