ANNAPOLIS – Maryland students may have new tests to worry about. But they won’t exactly be able to study for them.
A bill in the General Assembly would require that schools perform Body Mass Index readings and diabetes screenings for all students. If the tests indicate a student is unhealthy, parents would be sent a copy of the results.
If parents object to the tests, the student would be exempt from the screenings.
The bill is part of a growing effort to help combat what has been deemed an obesity epidemic, particularly among youngsters.
Nationally, the percentage of overweight children has almost tripled in the past 20 years. In recent years, states across the country have enacted many laws attempting to curb the number of childhood obesity cases.
Vending machines have been tossed out of schools; French fries scratched from cafeteria menus. School physical education and nutrition programs have been emphasized and expanded.
Last year Maryland legislators passed the Student Health Promotion Act requiring local schools boards to lock vending machines in schools during certain hours. Each jurisdiction determines the time the machines are prohibited.
If passed, the latest bill would make Maryland the latest state to require Body Mass Index testing in schools. Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Florida and California already have similar laws.
“(Students) aren’t good learners if they’re not healthy kids,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D – Prince George’s, during a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
“And all these other education bills that we have talked about are going to be meaningless if we let kids be sick.”
Pinsky added the screening results would be a good way to collect data on student obesity.
But school officials testified that the health report cards are not the right solution to the problem. The Maryland State Board of Education warned the bill doesn’t go far enough because it does not call for any treatment once problems have been identified.
Vicki Taliaferro, a specialist for School Health Services at the Maryland State Department of Education, added that when other states started requiring Body Mass Index testing in schools “part of the public opposition was perceived interference with the parent’s right to deal with their child’s weight.”
According to verbal and written testimony, health organizations are split over the bill.
Steve Wise, a lobbyist for the Maryland chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, commended the bill’s intention but said “schools are not the best setting to conduct the screenings.” Wise said schools should not conduct these tests because health information should remain confidential.
Pinsky noted “there is no guarantee that a child will get treatment” because not all students have access to health care.
The American Cancer Society submitted written testimony supporting the bill because the testing would align with the group’s efforts to promote a lifestyle that decreases the risk of cancer.
The bill says schools would calculate Body Mass Index and screen for diabetes when scoliosis tests are conducted. State law requires scoliosis screenings at least once for each student between the sixth and eighth grades.
The Body Mass Index looks at height and weight to gauge levels of body fat. But school officials and health administrators questioned the test’s integrity. Taliaferro noted athletes who are very healthy can score high numbers because they have high muscle mass.
There were also questions of how the diabetes screening would work. Pinsky said the diabetes screening would be noninvasive. The school health officials would just look for physical signs of diabetes and document family history and ethnicity, he said. Family history and ethnicity can be indicators of disease risk, he noted. The bill also calls for restriction on foods with high calorie, fat and sodium content and has been introduced in the House of Delegates.