Last month, four Black and Latina girls were allegedly strip-searched at a middle school in Binghamton, New York, and the events, and inaction surrounding it, has impacted their wellbeing.
According to Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow, a local advocacy group, the students were suspected of using drugs because they were “hyper and giddy” during lunch at East Middle School on Jan. 15. They were then reportedly strip-searched by the nurse and assistant principal.
The searches were done without the consent of the girls’ parents, who were made aware of the incident when their daughters arrived home.
“The children had their clothing removed and felt shamed, humiliated, and traumatized by [the] experience,” the group wrote on Facebook. “While they were being searched, the nurse made disparaging comments about the eczema of one girl and the size of another’s breasts.”
The group continued: “They, as well as their parents, believe the heinous and excessive actions implemented by the school were racially motivated.”
In an interview with ESSENCE, one of the girl’s mother’s called the school’s behavior “incorrect” and said her daughter and her friends were targeted for being low-income girls of color.
“I feel it was based off of the color of their skin, because they were females, and classism. We’re not higher class. So, I just feel like they were just being judged all around the board,” Chanderlia Silva told the publication.
Silva added that assumptions that the girls were on drugs because they were excited during lunch time were ridiculous, noting that “a child is in school, and it’s eight or nine periods in a day, and so when lunchtime comes, it’s a relief for kids.”
“So once lunchtime comes you actually get to connect with your friends, and talk, and laugh, and just be yourself,” she said.
These days, Silva says her 12-year-old daughter isn’t laughing as much. The girl, who her mother described as loving music, dancing, laughing and playing with makeup, has lost interest in the activities that used to bring her joy. Instead, she often sleeps in all day, behaviors that have her mother concerned.
“I felt like she was going into a stage of depression,” she said. “She was displaying behaviors of wanting to hurt herself, which definitely put me in a bad space because you never want to see your child go through that. Then, as a mom, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know exactly what to do. In those situations, you don’t want to put her in a more stressful space.”
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing all the families and seeking justice on behalf of the girls, said that the patterns Silva’s daughter is displaying are common signs of trauma.
“The girls have been traumatized by what has occurred, and research – psychological research – is very clear that for a strip search to be conducted at school for adolescents, [it] can have immediate and long-term consequences for girls,” Cara McClellan, of the LDF, told ESSENCE. “When we talked to the mothers of the girls who were subjected to this really demeaning treatment, it’s clear that they’ve seen changes in their daughters as a result, that their dignity and their trust has been violated by school officials and as a result, first of all, they no longer feel safe at school.”
The Binghamton City School District denied allegations that staff administered a strip search.
“When conducting medical evaluation, it may require the removal of bulky outside clothing to expose an arm so that vitals like blood pressure and pulse can be assessed,” the district said. “This is not the same as a strip search.”
Hundreds of community members came together following the alleged incident questioning why no action has been taken against employees involved.
In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he asked the State Department of Education to step in and investigate the allegations. More recently, the LDF demanded that changes be made to Binghamton Schools, apologies be given to the girls and disciplinary action be taken against the principal, assistant principal and nurse East Middle School.