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New Berlin schools face weighty privacy issue in fitness program

Dec. 11, 2012

New Berlin - Some parents are objecting to having their children weighed, and their body mass index determined, as part of local schools participation in a national program to improve student physical fitness.

They are asking school officials to at least create an opt-out procedure that would allow students to avoid such measures and the loss of privacy that can accompany such data.

Students' BMI is one of several fitness measures used in the Fitnessgram program that has been endorsed by the President's Council on Physical Fitness. Others measures determine strength, endurance, flexibility and aerobic capacity.

Students also are asked about their physical activities in the past week. Then students and parents get a report on whether their children's fitness levels are in the "healthy" or "needs improvement" zone for each category. The report then suggests alternatives that will move children into the various healthy zones.

A matter of privacy

Student weights and body mass index, or BMI, are kept confidential, the physical education teachers conducting the program assured the New Berlin School Board recently.

But some parents view weighing their children as an invasion of privacy.

"Parents are very concerned and do not agree with BMI testing," parent Peggy Siegel said. "I have not spoken with one parent who thinks this is a good idea."

Despite the teachers' assurances of confidentiality, there was an unconfirmed report that children were being weighed while classmates were present.

"I am not sure why the school district has to gather data for me that I did not ask for and can easily gather myself - I own a scale," parent Jodi Miller said.

If parents are concerned about their children's weight, they work with their pediatricians, she said.

Miller said she and other parents view this as an invasion of privacy and feel that their children's weight is a private matter.

An opt-out option?

Several have gotten their children excused from the weigh-in portion of the program, Miller said.

Siegel also called for parental choice and an opt-out option.

"We were all told in a long weekly email that it was happening," she said. "What we would like to see happen is a form come home from the school advising parents that they can opt out just like they do when they have the personal hygiene/body talks in fifth grade," Siegel said.

"If this were to happen, I believe all parents would be satisfied," she added.

But Superintendent of Schools Joe Garza did not see a reason at this point to do that. Only a small number of parents object and school officials are working with them, he said.

Garza also said, "If parents have questions or concerns about their child's participation in Fitnessgram, we encourage them to contact their child's physical education teacher. Teachers are happy to meet with parents about their individual questions and concerns."

The BMI is critical to calculating aerobic capacity, the most important fitness measure, the teachers said.

Healthy ideals

School Board member Art Marquardt added that parents and district officials should not forget that the initiatives for healthier living are no small local concern.

"As a board member, all I can say is we're under increased mandates to help our students be healthier, eat healthier and live healthier and this is one small part of that," he said.

Not only that, the requirement has come from the federal government through the state that schools now must educate each student based on their individual health situation, Marquardt said.

Strength, flexibility and all the rest are important, but the BMI is a crucial element in the teachers being able to properly instruct students to help with their particular needs, Marquardt said.

Editor's note: Story was updated at 11:35 a.m. with quotes from Superintendent of Schools Joe Garza.

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