More than 40 percent of Hall County students are overweight, according to data obtained by the school system.
Not all parents, however, were pleased with the manner in which that fact was communicated to them, said Mamie Coker, health services coordinator for Hall schools.
"Some of them are upset. We had to explain that terminology and the parameters are set by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)," Coker said. "As far as the word ‘obese,' that reflects children and teens weighing in the 95th percentile or greater. That's a medical term, and we couldn't interchange terms without being misleading."
The system screened children, with parent permission, for body mass index as part of the School Nurse Childhood Obesity Prevention Education program Hall schools began in September as a partnership with nursing students from North Georgia College & State University.
"We screened 12,000 students (for body mass index). Forty-one percent fell into the 85(th) percentile or greater, which is by CDC definition, overweight," Coker said. "We had 23 percent fall in the 95th percentile - almost a fourth of our portion in this top 5 percent."
Parents of students in that top 5 percent had a letter sent home, either directly mailed to them or put in a sealed envelope and sent home with report cards, Coker said.
The letter lists the child's weight, height, BMI and BMI percentile rank. A BMI rank in the lowest 5 percent is underweight, 5 to 85 percent normal weight, 85 percent or higher is at risk for overweight and 95 percent or higher is overweight.
The letter was intended for parents only. They could choose what to do with the information, whether that was to ignore it, schedule an appointment with their child's physician or broach the subject at a regularly scheduled doctor visit, Coker said.
"We did send out parent permission letters before we started implementing that program. If you did not want your child to participate, you could sign it and send it back," Coker said.
Students whose parents did not send the permission slip back underwent the BMI screening.
Body mass index is a percentage of body fat. It's not a stand-alone diagnostic tool to label someone as unhealthy, but it can be an indicator for future health problems, depending on the case. The BMI screens measure a number based on age, sex, height and weight. Students in the 95th percentile weigh more than other students of the same age and sex weighed nationwide, Coker said.
However, she said, not everyone with a high BMI is going to have such problems. Students in weight training have more muscle mass, which leads to a higher BMI.
"In the school system, we see students bringing Cheetos and Lunchables and energy drinks to school as their lunch, and it causes us concern," Coker said. "I think parent and community education is part of our responsibility, especially when we see almost one-half of our students fall in the overweight category."
The overarching vision for the SCOPE project was for parents to be aware of the statistics, Coker said.
"We are sensitive to our parents and by no means want to single out any student or make them (feel) singled out, or want parents to think they're not doing their job raising their children," Coker said.
"It is usual and customary to communicate screening results to parents. Whether it is vision, hearing, dental or scoliosis, we feel parents want to be informed of the results of the screens on their child and we try to do so in a confidential manner. ... We have decided next year to directly mail any letters."
Coker said all school systems are mandated to collect the height and weight information for state reporting purposes, but the BMI screening was an extra step Hall County Schools chose to take.
At the Jan. 9 board meeting when the issue was discussed, Superintendent Will Schofield commended the SCOPE program for bringing more awareness to the issue of childhood obesity.
"We do welcome parent feedback," Coker said. "Georgia ranks second to Mississippi in childhood obesity, and it's going to take everybody's effort to reverse the trend."