Video: Students too fat to graduate?

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    >>> animal house would be making the grade at lincoln university in pennsylvania. according to school policy some students are told that they're too fat to graduate. that's our topic today for making rounds. should universities be in charge of a student's body mass index ? joining me to make rounds from d.c., john is the professor of public interest law at george washington university and his use of legal action to fight obesity has earned him the nickname the man who is taking fat to court.

    >>> and by phone from lincoln , pennsylvania, james deboy, chair of the university department of health , physical education and recreation. jim, i'll start with you. can you please explain to me the school policy and why you instituted it.

    >> lincoln university is a historically black university and health disparities regarding african-americans in regard to such obesity. such things as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, too. we revised our core curriculum and like all universities, all departments weigh in as far as those experiences or courses that would benefit the university student . so, four years ago the university lincoln university approved two courses, one is our traditional classroom course which is called wellness, which covers those traditional topics of nutrition education and sexually transmitted diseases and fitness, as well as body composition of weight control and all other drugs.

    >> i should know right now 80 seniors, which is 16% of the supposed graduating class haven't fulfilled that requirement yet. but, john, everything he says is absolutely true and if we're concerned about the health of kids of color, why not just say, look. you may not like this, but this is in your best interest and we, as a university, will step in and take care of it.

    >> i strongly support the course for what it is. it's an experiment. it's well-grounded in precedent and many other colleges have various other fitness programs or some fitness requirements. it's, obviously, not illegal. it's very easy to do it and put it into effect and i think it will be effective. you know, we require our college students to take all kind of courses today, diversity, sensitivity, wellness, weight prevention and so on o. this one is, i think, consistent with that. it is easy to measure the results and, yeah, there are all kinds of experts out there that are critical of it but what i say to them, if you think you have a better answer to the problem of obesity, whether it's among blacks or the average college population, go out and convince some college that your program is a better one, adopt it and then we can see how well it compares with lincoln 's. i support what lincoln is doing.

    >> the idea of calculating a freshman's bmi and it has to be less than 30 because we know that is really the magic number cutoff and that you can reduce your bmi, if you can test out of this course, but, if not, you have to take it. it's interesting, jim, because i looked at the menu from the dining services hall of october 9 , 2009 , and these are some of the foods. including fried foods , cheese tortellini alfredo. the requirement versus the food you're serving.

    >> that's one of the requirements that the folks are fighting and trying to advocate as far as picking and choosing wisely. it is very difficult because healthy foods turn out to be less expensive. little bit of research and it's a question to keep the tuition low and other fees low. contact services and it is very much, as i agree with you, it has to be opportunity for --

    >> as a very fast yes or no. can the american, the americans for disability act, is there any nuance here for pushing back and saying you can't do this to me?

    >> virtually not. it applies to people who have such a substantial limitation on a major life activity that they can't dress themselves or get to class. the overwhelming majority of obese people on any college campus managed to get their rear ends to class and they're not protected and in any event here at lincoln they don't require them to actually lose the weight. they have an alternative and they can simply sit through a class. no problem.

    >> i love your candor. thank you so much. i think it's very innovative and, frankly, why not adopt it across the country. interesting. thanks so much, gentlemen.

    >>> well, up next, my post-op

updated 11/23/2009 2:06:04 PM ET 2009-11-23T19:06:04

A Pennsylvania university's requirement that overweight students take a fitness course to graduate has raised the hackles of students and the eyebrows of health and legal experts.

Officials at historically black Lincoln University said Friday that the school is simply concerned about high rates of obesity and diabetes, especially in the African-American community.

"We know we're in the midst of an obesity epidemic," said James L. DeBoy, chairman of Lincoln's department of health, physical education and recreation. "We have an obligation to address this head on, knowing full well there's going to be some fallout."

The fallout began this week on Lincoln's campus about 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia, where seniors — the first class affected by the mandate — began realizing their last chance to take the class would be this spring.

Tiana Lawson, a 21-year-old senior, wrote in this week's edition of The Lincolnian, the student newspaper, that she "didn't come to Lincoln to be told that my weight is not in an acceptable range. I came here to get an education."

In an interview Friday, Lawson said she has no problem with getting healthy or losing weight. But she does have a problem with larger students being singled out.

"If Lincoln truly is concerned about everyone being healthy, then everyone should have to take this gym class, not just people who happen to be bigger," she said.

Students required to have body mass index tested
The mandate, which took effect for freshmen entering in fall 2006, requires students to get tested for their body mass index, a measure of weight to height.

A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. Students with one that's 30 or above — considered obese — are required to take a class called "Fitness for Life," which meets three hours a week.

The course involves walking, aerobics, weight training and other physical activities, as well as information on nutrition, stress and sleep, DeBoy said.

As of this fall, DeBoy estimated about 80 seniors — 16 percent of the class — had not had their body mass index tested nor taken the fitness class. Some of those students will likely be exempt from taking the class once they get their BMI results, he said.

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Health experts applaud the school's intent, if not its execution. Mark Rothstein, director of the bioethics institute at the University of Louisville's School of Medicine, said being forced to disclose such health information is "at least awkward and often distasteful."

And it doesn't necessarily lead to the best outcomes, he said, noting that "when the (health) goals are imposed on people, they don't do that well in meeting them."

DeBoy stressed that students are not required to lose weight or lower their BMI; they must only pass the class through attendance and participation.

Some experts said recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act might lead to exemptions for morbidly obese students, who could argue that participating in the class would be dangerous.

Also, students need more than exercise, said Marcia Costello, a registered dietitian in the Philadelphia area. The university should make sure its dining halls and vending machines offer healthy choices, she said.

Costello, an assistant professor of nursing at Villanova University, also noted that body mass index can be misleading. Since muscle weighs more than fat, "it is possible to be overweight and still be physically fit," she said.

Lawson, a mass communications major, said while she believes her current BMI would exempt her from the class, she's going to take it anyway "because I would like to be healthier."

"This was a decision that I made," she wrote in The Lincolnian, "and that's the way it ought to be."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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