Until the District 65 School Board has a full discussion about whether screening children for their body mass index (BMI) is beneficial, the District will continue to conduct BMI screenings at the same schools as it has in the past. While no vote was taken at the April 8 Board meeting, it appeared that five of the seven Board members questioned the benefit of BMI screening.

There is disagreement, said Board President Katie Bailey, about “whether BMI [screening] is necessary to reach the Board’s goal [of fitness].”

It also appeared that the Board members who had favored changing the District’s opt-out procedure for BMI screening to an opt-in one were outnumbered.

Board members did appear to agree that BMI screening should not be expanded until the Board discussion on health, wellness and BMI – likely to be in May or June – but even that appeared to cause concern for two Board members.

District 65’s BMI Practices

School District 65 screens for BMI in children as young as fourth grade, officials admitted at the April 8 meeting. Even though BMI screening – the practice of gathering and sharing individual information about height and weight – has been the topic of two recent meetings of the Board’s Policy Committee, District officials did not disclose that information at either of those meetings.

Only repeated questioning by Board members elicited the information that the District conducts BMI screening at Dawes, Oakton, Orrington, Willard and Lincoln schools, in addition to Chute and Haven middle schools and King Lab. Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz said BMI screening was conducted in the fall on students at those schools.

The District defends its practice of BMI screening by saying it was part of the middle-school health-education curriculum. At the middle-school level, said Denise Rossa, middle-school physical education coordinator, students are weighed and measured and their BMI is calculated. That information is shared with parents over a secure website or by mail. Two weeks later, a class period is devoted to students’ accessing their own BMI information though the secure website, she said.

The District uses the Fitnessgram software program for its BMI screening and for other fitness tests of the middle-school students. With Fitnessgram, District officials say, students can see whether they are in the “healthy fitness zone.” Class discussion, said Ms. Rossa includes body composition and BMI, recommendations such as eating right and getting more exercise to get into the healthy fitness zone, and problems associated with BMI testing.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does endorse “BMI surveillance” – the practice of gathering information and compiling it in the aggregate for a school or school district as a whole. But CDC has issued strong cautions against conducting “BMI screening” – the practice of sharing individual BMI information – in schools because of the risk of teasing, bullying and stigmatization, among other things.

At the January and March Policy Committee meetings, parents, a pediatrician and a psychologist all said they opposed BMI screening: the practice of weighing and measuring individual students, sharing that information by email or a secure website with parents and then with students. Most said they believed the District has “good intentions” but said the practice humiliates some children at an age when they are already vulnerable and self-conscious of changes coming to their body.

Andy Pigozzi said he had not attended the Policy Committee meetings but wished he had done so “so I could understand the issue a little better. Those meetings should be televised.” He said, however, he thought the issue was a minor one, solely an Evanston one brought up by a few discontented parents.

“It is a national issue,” responded Tracy Quattrocki. “Michelle Obama has said that we have to get away from numbers and judgments.” She also said, “Parents are talking about the humiliation of students.”

Kim Weaver, who said she had not followed the discussion nor read any of the articles on BMI, said, “We have a lot of eating disorders in this country. … I see this as about a big a problem in our country as childhood obesity.” She added, though, “I’m on the same page as you, Tracy.”

Jerome Summers said, “They do this in high school. The sooner you know the information, the sooner you can make the correction. … We’re not talking about information but about how people feel about it.”

No Expansion of BMI Screening Yet

“I don’t think we should expand [BMI screening] any more until we have the [Board’s] decision [about whether to it at all],” said Ms. Bailey.

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said he disagreed with the idea that BMI screening was being “expanded” and said rather BMI screening “is not fully implemented,” since the administration’s intention was to conduct screenings at all District 65 schools, not just middle schools.

“There is no reason to force consistent implementation before the [Board] decision,” said Ms. Bailey.

She said she anticipated a full Board discussion in May or June about whether BMI was a tool the District should use. The “larger question,” she said, is whether BMI screening is a proper tool “for the health and wellness of our students.”

However, since the District has chosen the week of April 22 to conduct its spring BMI screening, the Board appeared to agree that the screening could continue this school year but only at the schools where it was already being done.

Opt-Out Policy Stands

As it now stands, parents can opt out of the BMI portion of the fitness testing, said Ms. Schulz. Students whose parents have exercised the opt-out will be “given an opportunity to work independently on developing their personal fitness plan during the testing time,” Ms. Schultz said in an April 4 memo provided to the Board.

Ms. Quattrocki, chair of the Policy Committee, said that, if the District proceeded with BMI screening in April, it should require parents to “opt in” to the screening rather than use an opt-out procedure. She said Wilmette schools are using an opt-in procedure. “I feel that not all parents will pay attention [to the opt-out provision.] Communication is not perfect,” she said.

Board member Richard Rykhus agreed: “We should have an opt-in policy,” he said.

“An opt-in policy will severely limit student access to this information,” said Ms. Schultz. “Everything else we do is opt-out.”

Other Board members favored the opt-out.

“It is more important to have the opt-out than the opt-in,” said Mr. Summers.

“Leave the [opt-out] as it is until the Board has had a full discussion,” said Ms. Weaver.

Eileen Budde said she agreed that a fuller discussion was necessary. She said she thought the opt-out policy should remain because changing it now “could be confusing to parents.” She added, though, that this “could be the last time” the District conducts BMI screenings.

In an April 3 memo to the District 65 School Board, Superintendent Hardy Murphy says that FITNESSGRAM and BMI Screening are allowed under Board Policy 7:15. As support he quotes language of that policy that is contained in a subsection headed, “Selling or Marketing Students’ Personal Information is Prohibited.”

The first paragraph of that subsection states, “No school official or staff member shall market or sell personal information concerning students (or otherwise provide that information to others for that purpose).” The paragraph then defines “personal information” as “individually identifiable information” including name, address, telephone number, social security number and driver’s license number.

The second paragraph of the subsection provides, “The above paragraph does not apply: (1) if the student’s parent(s)/guardian(s) have consented; or (2) to the collection, disclosure or, use of personal information collected from students for the exclusive purpose of developing, evaluating or providing educational products or services for, or to, students or educational institutions, such as the following: ….”

The italicized language in the foregoing paragraph is the language quoted by Dr. Murphy in his memo as allowing BMI.

In our view, an exception to a prohibition against selling students’ personal information does not constitute an authorization of BMI screening. Moreover, BMI Screening does not fall within the definition of “private information” contained in the subsection. Further, a BMI Screening is not done “for the exclusive purpose of developing, evaluating or providing educational products or services for, or to, students.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...