The rate of obese adolescents aged 12-19 has nearly quadrupled in the last three decades to a staggering 21% in 2012. Overweight and obesity rates are even higher in certain populations, disproportionally affecting nearly 40% of African American and Hispanic children. Overweight and obese minors are more likely to develop high cholesterol or blood pressure, diabetes, develop bone or joint problems, and suffer from social and psychological issues such as poor self-esteem.

In an effort to address these problems, six advocacy groups filed an administrative complaint in August 2015 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights alleging discrimination in California public school districts. The complaint highlights unjustified disparities in the access to physical education (PE) and fitness in California public schools on the basis of race, color, and national origin in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The groups are asking the U.S. Department of Education to work with the California Department of Education to require all school districts to utilize a toolkit created by Los Angeles (LA) County Department of Public Health originally designed in response to an earlier 2008 administrative complaint filed against the LA Unified School District.

California state law requires students to participate in a minimum of 200 minutes of PE in elementary schools and 400 minutes in middle and high schools over the course of 10 days. However, the vast majority of students are enrolled in schools that fail to meet these requirements. A 2012 study investigated school district compliance and its effect on student’s physical fitness. It found that only half of districts were in compliance, and that students in compliant districts were 29% more likely to be physically fit compared to those who were not. On average, schools in compliant districts were more likely to have higher percentage of White or Asian populations. Conversely, students in noncompliant districts were more likely to be African American or Hispanic. Finally, compliant districts generally had smaller percentages of students eligible for free or reduced priced meals compared to noncompliant districts. This report established a relationship between race, socioeconomic status, and inadequate access to PE in violation of state law and Title VI. A 2015 study affirmed these results, finding considerable disparities in physical fitness among African American and Hispanic students. Passage rates for the state’s fitness test, the Fitnessgram, were depressingly low for all students, but were found to be lower among African American (22%) and Hispanic students (26%) compared to Caucasian students (34%).

In October, LA’s Physical Education Programs Office presented a compliance report to the Board of Education as part of the 2008 complaint. Students meeting the BMI healthy fitness zones (which was recalculated in 2010 making true comparisons difficult) increased during the period, indicating that the toolkit may have a positive effect, though overall passage rates remained low. Unfortunately, the report did not examine compliance rates with the PE minute requirements, the passing rates for the Fitnessgram, or BMI fitness zones or passing rates by race.

The advocacy groups anticipate that this complaint may lead to similar increases in physical fitness levels among all California students. According to the Institute of Medicine, routine physical activity may not only improve health but also students’ mental, cognitive, and psychological health among many other benefits, highlighting the importance of providing access to adequate PE for all regardless of race or income.

This blog was prepared by Kim Weidenaar J.D., Deputy Director, Network for Public Health Law – Western Region Office, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.

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