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Measuring up
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Politicians and parents often battle over who should be responsible for the physical health of children, and a new bill working its way through the Georgia General Assembly will no doubt add more fodder to the fire.

The Student Health and Physical Education (SHAPE) Act, recently passed by the state senate, would require school systems designate employees at each school to conduct and report body mass index of all students in the district to the state twice a year. It still must pass the House and be signed by Governor Sonny Perdue.

Linda Hayden, Newton County Schools' associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the system is not currently required to measure body mass index.

She said elementary school students in Georgia are required to have 60 hours of physical education instruction annually.

"There are no requirements for middle school students for P.E.," Hayden said. "High school students have to take one unit for graduation."

Senator John Douglas (R-COvington) serves on the senate's education and youth committee where the bill was favorably received. However, Douglas was one of 13 senators who voted against the bill.

"I frankly don't think it's the school's business," Douglas said. "It's the students' business and the students' parents.

"I wouldn't want the schools to measure my daughter, although she is very thin, I should be the one who has to worry about that."

He said he is also concerned about the vagueness of the wording of the bill as well as its omission of funding language.

The bill, SB 506, introduced by Majority Leader Joseph Carter, creates a new position at the State Department of Education to coordinate fitness activities and make the data available to the public through the department's Web site.

Although the bill states recognition of healthy school zones will be coordinated by the new official at the department of education, it does not say what penalties might be incurred by being deemed an unhealthy school zone.

"Another concern I have is the time it would take time to measure every student," Douglas said. "When you measure every student in, say, a school as big as one of our high schools, that's going to take a lot of time."

 His last concern was about potential litigation since the bill does not require systems to receive parental consent forms in order to measure students.

Newton County Board of Education members share many of Douglas' concerns.

"I think the sentiment of the bill is well intended," said board member C.C. Bates. "I think the healthier our bodies are, the healthier our minds are.

"My concerns despite the intentions of the bill, however, are many."

Bates said she was concerned about what the measuring might do to children's self-esteems.

"I would hate to think that mandated BMI testing contributed to a middle or high school girl's eating disorder," Bates said. "The idea of labeling a school as an unhealthy school zone is also a little troubling.

"I think teachers have enough pressure on them without adding this."

Board member Cathy Dobbs said the school system already measures students' height and weight and wanted to know how the data will be used other than to report statistics.

"I also have some reservations about not asking permission of parents for this test," Dobbs said, "as a BOE member I can see a lawsuit waiting to happen, and lawsuits mean tax dollars spent."

She added new nutrition guidelines adopted by the district have made steps toward offering healthier meal choices in schools.

School Nutrition Director Jan Loomans said federal regulations do exist regarding the calorie and calorie from fat intake in school meals.

"For breakfast the meal should average, over a week, 554 calories per breakfast and 18.5 grams of fat," Loomans said. "At lunch, for elementary school the meal has to average 664 calories with 22 grams of fat, again averaged over the week.

"For middle and high school students the calories are 825 with 27.5 grams of fat."

Loomans said although current regulations do not specify what sweets can and cannot be served in the schools, sweets served must fall within the calorie and fat guidelines.

Low-fat cookies and ice cream as well as frozen fruit cups are offered in Newton County Schools. According to Loomans, sweets are not served more than twice a week.

New American Beverage Association guidelines mandate what drinks can be served in school vending machines and cafeterias.

In elementary schools, bottled water, 8-ounce servings of milk and 100 percent juice with no added sweeteners can be served. Flavored milk must have no more than 150 calories in an 8-ounce serving.

Middle school guidelines are the same as in elementary schools, except juice and milk may be sold in 10-ounce servings.

At the high school level 12-ounce servings of milk and juice are allowed as long as they adhere to the 150 calorie per 8-ounce guideline, as well as no- or low-calorie beverages with up to 10 calories per 8-ounce serving.

These guidelines do not apply to after-school events where parents and other adults are part of an audience.

Loomans also said Newton County Schools have stopped serving fried foods and only two schools in the county even house inoperative fryers anymore.

"We have posters regarding milk in most of the schools, but really need to increase the nutrition education information that we have in the schools."

Loomans said she is also working on several nutrition awareness campaigns for the schools for next school year.

Bates said she hopes the board will soon approve sending flyers detailing the health and wellness programs offered by the Covington YMCA.

Douglas said if SB 506 passes in the House, the governor has 30 days to sign or veto the bill after the end of the legislative session, which could see the bill take effect next school year.

"I would suggest to citizens that if they don't like the bill," Douglas said, "that they call one of their local representatives and tell them about it."