Tisei: Keeping our kids healthy and safe
Labor Day marks the traditional end of summer and the start of a new school year.
As students throughout Massachusetts return to the classroom, I thought I would take this opportunity to give parents a brief overview of some of the education-related issues now being considered by the Legislature.
One topic that has drawn extensive local and national media coverage is the debate over school nutrition and childhood obesity. According to a July 2007 study by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 16 percent of American children are overweight or obese, a figure that is expected to increase to 24 percent by 2015.
Numerous studies have shown a clear link between obesity and serious medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. To address this growing epidemic, the Legislature is exploring several options to encourage kids to eat healthier and to get more exercise during the school day.
The Public Health Committee recently endorsed House Bill 4199, AnAct to Promote Proper School Nutrition. If approved by the House and the Senate, this bill would require that students be offered healthier choices on items sold in school cafeterias and vending machines.
House Bill 4199 would limit the offerings on school lunch menus to non-fried fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, non-fat and low-fat dairy products, and foods containing no trans fat. Many restaurants are now eliminating trans fats from their menus because they raise “bad” cholesterol while lowering “good” cholesterol, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
The proposed legislation would restrict beverage sales on school grounds to non-carbonated water without flavoring and additives; 100 percent fruit juice; non-fat or low-fat dairy drinks; and caffeine-free products. Carbonated soft drinks, which contain large amounts of sugar and contribute to weight gain, would no longer be sold in schools.
To give students a better understanding of how healthy their school lunches and snacks really are, distributors would be required to provide information detailing the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, and vitamins found in their product. This nutritional information will help kids make healthier choices.
In addition to these food and beverage restrictions, House Bill 4199 also calls for training school nurses to recognize and treat eating orders and type 2 diabetes, to identify students who may be at-risk for developing these health problems, and to refer them to the appropriate medical resources in the community.
Even with a well-balanced diet, students need to be physically active to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Although state law currently requires physical education to be included in the curriculum, many schools no longer offer regular gym classes or recess for students. This lack of physical activity only contributes to the obesity problem.
Senate Bill 334, An Act to Improve Quality Physical Education, would reverse this trend by requiring students in grades K-5 to receive at least 150 minutes of physical education each week, or about half an hour each day. Students in grades 6 through 12 would be required to complete at least 225 minutes of physical activity a week, or an average of 45 minutes a day.
Students who are sedentary and don’t exercise regularly can face more than health problems: they are also at greater risk for being picked on by other kids because of their weight. According to a 2003 study commissioned by Northeastern University Professor James Fox, as many as 3.2 million people are victims of bullying each year, and are five times more likely than their peers to be depressed and four times as likely to be suicidal.
Senate Bill 275, An Act Relative to Bullying, is one of several anti-bullying proposals now being considered to protect students from harassment at school. This bill requires school officials to create a safe learning environment by taking swift and decisive action against bullies before the harassment spirals out of control and escalates into violence.
Not all bullying is carried out through physical contact. It can also take the form of e-mails, words or even gestures that create a hostile school atmosphere that hinders a student’s academic performance, which the bill acknowledges.
Senate Bill 275 would require all school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies and a bullying prevention plan. These policies would provide students with a clear understanding of what is considered appropriate behavior, and what is deemed to be unacceptable.
The bill requires every school to set up a mechanism for students, staff and parents to report bullying, and to designate an official who will be responsible for implementing and enforcing the school’s anti-bullying plan. It also requires parents to be promptly notified if their child is being bullied.
All children deserve a quality education. Creating an environment that is both healthy and safe plays an important role in achieving that goal.
State Sen. Richard Tisei, R-Wakefield, represents the Middlesex and Essex District.