By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Does Hialeah have the fattest school in the nation?
Two months ago, Mae Walters Elementary teacher Charlie Filpes went before the Miami-Dade County School Board with a bold claim: An article was about to be published in the Journal of School Health, he said, calling his "the fattest school in the nation."
What Filpes didn't mention was that the findings, published as a letter to the editor in the May edition of the journal, were the result of a study the teacher himself conducted. Filpes measured the height and weight of every student at the Hialeah school — more than 850 of them — and calculated each one's body mass index. He was shocked by the findings: More than 36 percent of the students qualified as obese; an additional 17 percent were overweight.
"They're superfat — superfat!" Filpes says. "When you consider that 36 percent is higher than the obesity rate in adults, that's really scary." (The rate for grownups is 33 percent.)
The charismatic teacher has been waging a personal war on obesity among his students for more than three years. It began, he says, when he brought coolers filled with sugar-free fruit drinks to open houses, encouraging parents to stock the beverages instead of soda at home. Gradually he began working lessons on nutrition into his fifth-grade classes. It wasn't long before he had created his own curriculum.
Filpes explains, "The first thing I do is teach the nutrition label," which involves a little mathematics lesson to boot. Students compare the difference in grams of sugar, for example, between white milk and chocolate milk (the latter has 80 grams more), both of which are served at the school cafeteria. Then the kids multiply by the number of days in the school year — about 180.
"That's 14,400 grams," Filpes points out. After a while, Filpes says, his kids stopped drinking the stuff altogether. "None of my kids drink chocolate milk," he says. "And I don't hold a gun to their head. I just teach it to them."
Filpes began hosting an after-school fitness club twice a week; at one point, about 80 kids had joined. They started losing weight — up to 10 pounds in some cases. Filpes sent surveys home to parents, seeking feedback about the program and asking whether their children had persuaded them to keep healthier foods around the house. The surveys came back with glowing reports. "My daughter ... is much happier about herself," reads one. "Everyone in the family has noticed. Thank you."
Meanwhile, though, Filpes was having less success with the school board. He lobbied to have chocolate milk removed from the cafeteria; no luck. He met with school officials, explaining his program and its results, and asking for something like it to be implemented system-wide. The answer: no money. "Granted, there's budget cuts right now," admits Filpes. "But my success in my classroom had nothing to do with money. It's called nutrition education, you know what I mean?"
A frustrated Filpes finally conducted a study declaring Mae Walters "the fattest school in the nation." It's likely an exaggeration, but according to Dr. James Price, who published the findings, Filpes has indeed identified higher levels of obesity — and in younger children — than have been published almost anywhere.
"What we do know is that obesity tracks from childhood to adulthood," Price points out. "A very large percentage of those obese as children will be obese as adults." And obesity, Price says, translates to a shorter lifespan.
And that's a statistic that bothers him, Filpes says. "You're telling me that two-thirds of my kids are going to die younger than they have to? I take that personally."
Shock 'n' Roll
Kicked off the bus, a metal head fights back.
Mark Whittington is not the kind of guy who lets things slide. So even though three years have passed since he was kicked off a Miami-Dade Metrobus for allegedly distributing Nazi propaganda, Whittington is still looking to get even. This past January 28, he sued the county for defamation, seeking $95,000 in damages.
"I am not going to let it go and let them badmouth me," Whittington says. "If I let them call me a Nazi and a racist, what's next?"
Whittington, an aging aspiring rocker whose band goes by the name Nuclear Skull, is no stranger to tangles with The Man. In 2004, he sued Sterling Realty president and Miami Police Cmdr. William Alvarez, claiming the realtor-cop harassed and threatened him when he resided in an apartment building near the Vizcaya Metrorail station. Whittington also filed a complaint with Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel. His lawsuit was dismissed, and the CIP cleared Alvarez of wrongdoing. At the time, in an interview with New Times, Whittington described himself as a rattlesnake. "I don't bother anyone," he said, "but if you step on me, you're gonna get bit."
A year later, on the morning of February 7, the punk/metal rattler got on a northbound T bus in downtown Miami. According to Whittington, an elderly Hispanic woman was handing out religious brochures to other passengers. She offered Whittington a pamphlet, which he accepted. He sat down in the back of the bus. On the seats around him, he placed five three-by-five promotional flyers for his band, featuring a logo of a skull with a radiation symbol stamped on its forehead.