Heavy topics: Parents call for reform in city schools

Christa Bennett and her daughter, Emma, enjoy recess at Jackson-Via Elementary School. Courtesy Christa Bennett Christa Bennett and her daughter, Emma, enjoy recess at Jackson-Via Elementary School. Courtesy Christa Bennett

By age 6, children—and girls, especially—begin to express concerns about their weight, according to a widely referenced 2011 study by psychologist Linda Smolak. For this reason, one local mother says the practice of publicly weighing students during gym class should be banned.

At press time, Christa Bennett’s petition to stop weigh-ins in Charlottesville City Schools had 91 of the 100 signatures she wanted to get.

“Why are our children being weighed? At Jackson-Via Elementary, parents are not notified that this will be happening nor are they provided with the results afterwards,” the petition says. “Weight has some correlation to health, but more and more research is coming out that indicates healthy individuals can have significantly different weights.”

The mother of a third-grader at Jackson-Via, Bennett says her daughter, Emma, hasn’t criticized her own figure, but for Emma and her peers, “it’s something that’s going to begin a problem and they may not realize it until they’re 20, looking back and wondering where their body issues started.”

She says weighing children in front of their classmates should be done with sensitivity to insecurities that kids may already be developing. “Without a compelling reason, it shouldn’t be done. And never should it happen without parental notification and follow-up,” she says.

One mother who supports Bennett’s efforts, and asked not to be named for fear her daughter would be singled out, says her second-grader at Burnley-Moran Elementary School is 8 years old, and already talking about calories and how she doesn’t like certain things about her appearance.

“With all the pressure on kids to look and act a certain way, the last thing they need is a message coming from their school that their bodies may not be ‘right,’” she says. “Especially if that message is being conveyed in front of a roomful of their peers.”

Bennett’s petition also addresses disciplining students by taking away their recess for misbehaving or forgetting homework. Emma, she says, has had her recess forfeited twice for talking in class.

“Weighing children one day and taking away recess the next is not an approach that makes sense,” Bennett says.

Though her daughter has had an enjoyable experience in school, she says, Bennett brought her concerns to the Charlottesville City School Board on May 4 and the School Health Advisory Board on May 9, when Superintendent Rosa Atkins said recess should not and will not be taken away from students. (The majority of elementary schools had this practice.)

“It isn’t over yet,” Bennett says, adding that only about 15 people heard the superintendent make that remark. “I would like for her to email or write to parents and teachers so everyone is on the same page.”

Bennett also calls for more disciplinary resources for teachers who have been taking away recess. “If you’re going to say ‘you can’t do this,’ what can you do instead?” she asks.

Patrick Johnson, the coordinator of health and physical education in city schools, says weigh-ins have been suspended since March. The School Health Advisory Board has been evaluating and updating its wellness policy since September, and he hopes to have an updated policy for the school board to review by the start of next school year.

“We have traditionally not weighed students in the spring semester, just once a year in the fall,” he says. “Due to the concern of Ms. Bennett and the updating of the wellness policy, I made sure that the PE teachers understood that we were not weighing students this spring.”

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