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Critics decry D203 tracking of junior high students’ weight

Lincoln Junior High School offers variety activities during physical educaticlasses. |  File photo

Lincoln Junior High School offers a variety of activities during physical education classes. | File photo

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Updated: January 8, 2013 6:08AM

A component of the physical education curriculum in Naperville District 203 that tracks junior high school kids’ weight has some members of the community upset. District officials say the matter has been discussed with those who have raised concerns about it, but opposition to the monitoring has not eased.

Parents of Lincoln Junior High School students contacted administrators in September, objecting to their kids being asked to track their weight throughout the fitness unit.

“I said, ‘You are creating a generation of eating disorders. You should focus on wellness, not weight,’” said Karen Smith, mother of a sixth-grader.

School officials assured Smith that her child could opt out of the decade-old piece of the curriculum, and the student’s grade would not be affected. That did not fix the problem, however.

“Here’s the problem with optional: you create that drama with weighing,” Smith said.

Wendy Nawara said her two junior high-age kids were told last week, when it was time to do their second weigh-in, that they could do it at home instead if they preferred. Nawara said the offer, while perhaps well-intended, missed the point.

“It doesn’t matter if (my daughter) weighs herself at home or at school. The number needs to go down in order for her to feel good about herself,” she said.

Posing alternatives

Nawara is certain that a school system with an award-winning PE program such as District 203 can use other means to evaluate wellness that don’t make young teens feel anxious and self-conscious.

“This isn’t what they should be doing. Why can’t they see if (students’) times on the mile have changed? They can take anecdotal information about how they’re feeling one day relative to another,” or monitor how often they eat fast food, Nawara said.

It was she who alerted other parents to the weight monitoring and launched the fall outcry.

“The reason I got so upset about it was because it’s not just about my kids. It affects all kids. It’s bad practice,” she said. “I just was really disturbed that this was the way we’re looking at wellness.”

John Fiore, instructional coordinator for the district’s physical education program, said when the current curriculum was devised a decade ago, the department opted not to require weigh-ins, although body composition is one of the five standard measures of fitness. The others include strength, endurance, flexibility and cardiovascular health.

Fiore said students are told they can simply leave the weight space blank if they don’t want it recorded.

“We are not forcing kids to stand on scales in front of their peers,” he said, adding that the schools are keenly aware that there are students who struggle with eating disorders and obesity. “I don’t think we focus on one data point, because fitness isn’t defined one way.”

Still, parents say their kids direct their own focus to the pounds measurement, because they live in a society that values thinness.

Smith found little comfort in the school gym teacher’s insistence that students were instructed not to share their numbers with one another.

“That’s all they talk about — in the lunchroom, after school, on social media,” she said.

Taking it personally

Some parents are certain their kids have been impacted directly by the schools’ interest in their weight, and the students’ tendency to talk about it.

One mom whose eighth-grade daughter is now in treatment for anorexia said the girl never mentioned the weighings when she was undergoing them; the mother learned about it from her younger daughter. But she asked the older girl, on the way to therapy one day, whether the practice had played a role in her decision to consume no more than 900 calories a day.

“She said, ‘Absolutely. It just reminded me that my weight had not gone down since I started this, it had actually gone up three pounds.’ That just hit me like a ton of bricks,” said the mother, who wanted to protect her daughter from added stigma and asked that their names be kept out of this story. “It just makes me so angry that they’ve made this a focus, because even if it only affects one child in a grade level it changes a life.”

Beth Williams’ daughter is in high school now, but she said the signature behaviors of anorexia began after the junior high unit, when the seventh-grade girl’s friends at Jefferson Junior High weighed in at 90 to 95 pounds, while she tipped the scales at 105.

“She was mortified,” Williams said. “Everyone was just amazed at how ‘fat’ she was. So she stopped eating.”

After helping her teen negotiate a variety of treatment programs over the past several years, she concurs that the discretionary aspect of the weigh-ins falls short of addressing what the parents view as the program’s potential to do more harm than good.

“It’s horrible. It’s an epidemic, in terms of what it does to those girls,” she said. “They say it’s optional, but it still is a topic of conversation, because girls are girls.”

District spokeswoman Susan Rice stressed that students are entitled to be excluded from the weighing, and those who do take part are informed clearly that the process is done privately, and the data is not shared.

Asked and

The district responded promptly, Rice said, when the parents raised the issue in the fall.

“The initial conversation with the parents brought up some concerns that we needed to be aware of,” she said.

Rice emphasized that no additional attempts have been made by the parents to follow up since those communications.

“To our knowledge, to the conversations with the principal resolved the issue,” she said.

Others say more conversations are needed to claim full resolution.

Psychologist Maria Rago, who heads a private practice in downtown Naperville and until recently was the longtime clinical director of the eating disorders program at Linden Oaks at Edward, was alarmed to learn that District 203 schools track students’ weight.

“No good is going to come out of it,” she said, surmising that the practice positions kids for disappointment.

Rago, who is national vice president of the Naperville-based National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, said dietitians and physicians are far better equipped than educators to interpret weight.

“It’s part of ANAD’s mission to help schools understand that they shouldn’t be doing this and they’re not qualified,” she said.

Healthy goals

Fiore said District 203 is especially proud that its PE program is fitness based, rather than revolving around sports.

“Ultimately that’s our end-all product, that we have students that want to lead a healthy lifestyles,” he said, adding that the data system enables students to keep tabs on their own improvement. “We’re trying to teach kids to track trends, and where are the trends going?”

That message, some say, may be overshadowed by most adolescents’ yearning to be popular, which typically involves being thin.

Rago – who coauthored a book published last year titled, “Shut Up, Skinny Bitches!” – asserts that educators do a disservice by conveying the message, albeit unintentionally, that weight is a primary indicator of health. She said research suggests that when lifestyle changes are made that result in substantial health improvement, and fat transforms to muscle, the number on the scale may not change at all.

Rago pointed to a recent study of 10-year-olds who had developed the precursors for diabetes, which found that 20 minutes of supervised physical activity every day eliminated entirely their risk of developing the chronic medical condition.

“That’s what our nation is missing, because we’re only focusing on weight. They’re totally missing that physical activity is much more important,” said Rago, who is concerned about reported increases in boys developing disordered eating behaviors historically far more common in girls. “When you train children to restrict their food, about a third of those kids might be at risk for developing binge eating disorder.”

Critics of the weight monitoring are mindful that early adolescence is often rife with self-doubt and an inordinate focus on a standardized notion of physical beauty.

“These kids are so worried about fitting in at this stage of development,” Nawara said. “Their need to fit in and to be just like everybody else is paramount.”

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