"The current policies to protect student data are pretty inconsistent and at times woefully inadequate," said James Steyer, CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media, which reviews technology and children's privacy.
Little is known about the outcomes of school-based measurement programs, including effects on attitudes, and behaviors of youth and their families. As a result, no consensus exists on their utility for young people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Schools, over medical clinics, have the advantage of having access to the largest number of children. The local data is valuable to researchers who have had a dearth of childhood obesity information, and it can be used to pinpoint places that need help, said Dr. Matt Longjohn, an assistant adjunct professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
"If parents knew the facts — that obesity solutions may be being applied to their communities inequitably or inadequately without this data — they would support this," Longjohn said.
Statewide childhood obesity rates in Arkansas have remained relatively stable since it became the first state in 2003 to mandate school-based screenings.
Arkansas has become a model for how to do it, as well as Chula Vista's school district, along with San Diego County's Health and Human Services Agency, which also now records children's body mass index scores, Longjohn said.
A kit by Chula Vista for other schools recommends a professional digital scale with a remote display so only trained staff sees the number, and not listing children's names in any report. Mirroring CDC's guidance for schools, staff explains to parents how the information will be used and they can opt out.
The district found that schools with the most overweight students were in the poorest areas and had the smallest number of parks and the highest concentration of fast-food restaurants.
Beltran said the map motivated parents, but they would have been uncomfortable if officials had issued body fat report cards.
"Nobody wants to feel attacked or put on the offensive by being singled out," she said. "So it helped that we were told we're all in this together."
The cafeteria at Lilian J. Rice Elementary, Antonio Beltran's school, now offers fruit and vegetables from local farms and eliminated chocolate milk. Parent Teacher Association fundraisers sell bracelets and magazines instead of nachos and candy.
In 2012, the district measured again and found obesity rates dropped by 3 percent and the number of students in the normal weight range increased by 3 percent — meaning about 750 students had moved down a level.
"We're not yet where we want to be, but we're close," Principal Ernesto Villanueva said. "Considering 80 percent of our most common disease could be prevented by changing what we eat, that's pretty powerful stuff."
Students will be measured again this fall.
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