Young filmmaker turns lens to ‘fat letters’

When Bailey Webber, a Springboro High School junior, decided to make her first documentary, she tackled that most sensitive of all possible topics: Body image —with a bit of politics tossed in.

Webber, 17, is the daughter of Mike Webber, 42, who co-owns MainSail Productions in Miamisburg. The older Webber is perhaps best known for directing “The Elephant in the Living Room,” an award-winning Dayton-centric film that can be found on Netflix or DVD.

“Elephant” follows then-Oakwood public safety officer Tim Harrison as he struggled to help people overwhelmed by their “exotic” pets — think lions, tigers, bears and venomous snakes.

The premise of the new film, “The Student Body,” is very different. Lawmakers in some 20 states, including Ohio, passed a law in recent years requiring or allowing schools to perform body mass index, commonly known as BMI, tests on students.

‘You’re fat’

The tests were not popular. When students were sent home with letters alerting parents to what they probably already knew — that their child can be considered overweight — the results were rarely helpful, the Webbers found.

“I think it’s stigmatizing to those kids, especially growing up, to actually get a letter saying, ‘You’re fat,’ from the school, as if they didn’t know,” Bailey Webber said.

The documentary shows “two brave girls who take a stand against government intrusion and hypocrisy while exploring the complex and controversial truths of the childhood obesity debate, ” as fanfare for the film put it.

The daughter-father team encountered some very human reactions to are called “fat letters.” Overweight students who once sought a haven from bullying in teachers or school nurses felt they no longer had that, Michael Webber said.

“You’ve got 2,000 other kids at school able to tell you that,” he said. “It’s one of the things she (Bailey) explored.

“It’s probably the worst bullying technique that there is,” said Bailey, who runs cross-country for her school.

Ohio schools do not appear to have embraced the BMI-testing provision of the 2009 law — dubbed the “Healthy Choices for Healthy Children” bill — with many taking advantage of a later provision that allowed districts to bypass BMI screening.

“So many schools have opted out that it was no longer worth it to keep tracking those who do,” said Melanie Amato, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health.

Few BMI screenings in schools

Amato referred further questions to a nutrition official with the Ohio Department of Education. An department spokesman could not say how many Ohio school districts still screen students for BMI; and he could not say why districts elected not to take part in BMI screenings.

“My speculation is that a lot of districts found them to be time-consuming or even invasive to students,” said John Charlton, spokesman for the department.

The department did hear negative reactions to the idea of required testing, he acknowledged.

“Anecdotally, we did hear that, obviously, if you have a child who is heavier, that can be embarrassing,” Charlton said.

State Sen. Eric Kearney, D-Columbus, a co-sponsor of the bill, was not available for comment. The Webbers said Kearney did sit down with them for an interview as part of their documentary.

Gary Cates, a former state senator from Butler County, now serving as vice chancellor with the Ohio Board of Regents, opposed BMI screening when he was a senator. Cates spoke with the Webbers about his opposition, and he remains opposed, seeing the screening as an unfunded mandate, something schools typically resist.

But Cates was also uncomfortable with the idea of “government taking people’s measurements.”

“I just thought, we don’t want to go down this path,” the former senator said.

Obesity can’t be ignored

The bill had facets beyond BMI testing. It required 30 minutes of physical activity daily, not including recess. It required schools to include physical education performance on report cards, and it allowed schools to provide a free breakfast to all students who qualify for a free or reduced-price meal, among other provisions.

Amy Moyer is vice president of field operations at Action for Healthy Kids, a Chicago-based national nonprofit that focuses on student health. She cautions that while BMI screenings may be unpopular, the problem of childhood obesity can’t be ignored.

“The earlier you learn healthy habits, typically as the research shows, the healthier you are over the course of your life,” Moyer said.

BMI screenings can work, but they have to be done right, and schools should work with a physician or hospital, some partner that the public recognizes as authoritative when it comes to health care, she said.

“The messaging has to be thought through very carefully,” Moyer said. “I think it has to be done in partnership with a physician’s office.”

Many students spend entire days at school, including day care in the morning and afternoons, she said. Health care at school is a growing trend, Moyer said.

“Some students get all three meals at school. They get their medications from the school nurses. They are cared for eight, nine, ten hours a day,” she said.

Twenty-one states had enacted policies or made recommendations on the collection of height and weight data in public schools — including Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and others, according to an August 2013 report, “‘Fat Letters’ in Public Schools: Public Health Versus Pride.”

The Webbers intend to release “The Student Body” either later this year or early next. While the Webbers welcome prospective investors, finances will not keep the film from being released, they said.

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