Petition to stop weigh-ins and taking away recess at Charlottesville city schools

On May 4, I presented the following to the Charlottesville City School Board in hopes that they will review the current practices of weighing students every year during gym class and of taking away their recess as punishment in Charlottesville city public schools. If you would like to join me in asking for the school board to review and consider changing these policies, you can click here to sign my petition.

An update on the board’s response will be posted soon.*****

My daughter, Emma Bennett-McConnell, is a third-grader at Jackson-Via Elementary School. Emma’s sister, Maggie, will start kindergarten at Jackson-Via in 2018. My husband and I plan that both of our girls will attend k-12 in Charlottesville city schools, one day graduating from this high school. We are grateful to be part of such a strong school system and appreciate everything you do for our students. My mother has been a teacher for almost forty years, most of that time in public schools, so I know how hard our teachers and administrators work.

What I want to talk to you about today is how we communicate to our students about health in our schools. In particular, I want to address two issues: first, the practice of weighing students during gym class, and second, the use of Recess Academy.

During the summer of 2013, Emma was preparing to enter kindergarten at Jackson-Via, and I attended a Q & A session with the parents of incoming kindergarteners and our school’s principal, Dr. Daniels. I asked Dr. Daniels if the children were ever weighed at school. I thought they probably wouldn’t be, but sometimes the questions you don’t think you have to ask are exactly the ones you should.

When I asked the question, the other parents and the principal laughed – good-naturedly, but as if, yes, that was a crazy question. Dr. Daniels assured me the students were not weighed. But a couple of months later, Emma came home and told me that the gym teacher weighed the whole class on “a scale like the doctor’s.”

I brought this to Dr. Daniels’ attention, and I couldn’t have asked for a better response. She was not defensive, she apologized, and she agreed to my request that Emma not be weighed in the future. We are thankful for how responsive Dr. Daniels is.

I don’t want to cast her or the school in a bad light. I do want to ask you for further examination of this policy.

A 2011 study found that by age 6, children – especially girls – start to express concern about their weight or shape, and half of elementary school girls are concerned about their weight or becoming fat. Body image begins in childhood. Weighing children at this age, in front of their peers, should be done with serious sensitivity to body issues that children may already be developing. Being possibly administered by an opposite-sex teacher and without parental notification are just two immediate indications that the appropriate sensitivity is not being observed.

After Emma was weighed in school, I shared on my Facebook account about my frustration with this practice. Unsolicited, friends replied with stories about their own experiences of being weighed in school. They said things like:

  • being weighed at school made them “want to run into a closet and hide.”
  • “I always heard snickers and whispers from the other girls and would fight back tears.”
  • “I remember exactly what I weighed in 6th grade and where all our friends fell in a hierarchy by weight. It was the first time I lied about my weight.”

One friend wrote, “I was weighed in gym class in the seventh grade, and it is still one of the most horrifying, mortifying memories I have in my life.”

These are all women in their 30s. The stories they tell are twenty years old, yet still the women acutely remember the shame that accompanied being weighed in school.

How we handle these sensitive issues matter. They have long-lasting consequences.

This brings me to the issue of Recess Academy. I don’t know if it is practiced at all city schools, but it is at Jackson-Via. Recess Academy is when a student is disciplined by having some or all of their recess time taken away when they do something they’re not supposed to or forgetting their homework – something I think we’ve all done at one point or another.

This is not an evidence-based approach. A 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences stated: “Children who are more active show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active.” It also said, “Consistent engagement in recess can help students refine social skills.”

I’ll give you the link to this report, and I highly encourage you to read it. I think you’ll have strong feelings about Recess Academy once you do.

Recess Academy is additionally problematic because the kids who ‘act up’ in class may be the ones who would most benefit from physical activity.

Susan Cluett, the Program Director for the UVA Children’s Fitness Clinic, said last year: “Withholding recess as a punishment is common in a lot of schools. If a kid misbehaves or forgets to do homework, recess is taken away. Recess should be part of a normal school day, and it should never be withheld. The kids who disrupt class are the kids who need exercise the most.”

These quotes are representative of the research I’ve found on this issue. I’ll provide you with a sheet that includes additional references.

I think you may be able to see where this going. Weighing our children in front of their peers, without a doctor’s counsel, without parental notification, coupled with taking away their recess, whether in whole or part, is not an approach to wellness and academic success that makes sense to me.

I do want to pause here and say that I don’t blame most teachers for using Recess Academy. It is incredibly difficult to manage the behavior of an entire class when there are so many factors playing into how students behave. Do our teachers need training in alternative methods? Are our schools understaffed? I want our teachers to have the resources they need. I want to help them get that.

I ask that you review the policies of weighing students and of Recess Academy and provide me with further information about them:

1) What federal, state, or local statutes mandate these policies?
2) Are the policies regularly reviewed, with consideration for updating them to reflect evolving research regarding physical and academic fitness?
3) If Recess Academy is not a legally mandated policy but rather a practice, why is it being practiced and where did it originate?

If these policies can be changed at our city level, I will then ask for your help in changing them.

This is about the whole child. It is about doing all we can to give our students the best chance at succeeding in every way they can – academically, physically, and socially.

Thank you so much.


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