Happiness among Black girls is not a crime

January 31, 2019

Joan McKiernan reports on the anger and sadness in Binghamton, New York, after a middle school strip-searched four girls for the crime of appearing “giddy.”

WERE YOU ever accused of acting giddy when you were 12 years old? Who wasn’t?

Well, if you’re Black and female in the sixth grade in Binghamton, New York, you might end up being strip-searched.

That’s what happened recently to four 12-year-olds in East Middle School who were suspected of using drugs because they appeared to be “hyper and giddy,” according to a letter from Principal Tim Simonds. The children were brought to the school nurse’s office and told to remove their clothes. One child refused and was punished with in-school suspension.

To add to the insult and trauma, the nurse made disparaging comments about the girls’ bodies as she searched them. Parents were not consulted. They didn’t find out about this until the traumatized girls came home.

Community members protest the strip-searching of students at a Binghamton middle school
Community members protest the strip-searching of students at a Binghamton middle school (@AAPolicyForum | Twitter)

Community activists in Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow and supporters of the girls and their families quickly reacted on January 22 by packing a high school gym where the Binghamton school board was holding its meeting.

According to local resident Dave Duncan, residents were determined to be heard and to ignore the board’s agenda. The mother of one of the victims said, “My daughter is having flashbacks and is depressed because of the strip search. This should not have come from those people who are taking care of her in the place of her parents.”

Several speakers argued that this wouldn’t have happened if the girls were white, while others complained about the disproportionately higher rate of suspensions of Black children, compared to white children. The head of the local chapter of the NAACP recommended that the state look into revoking the nurse’s license.

Perhaps the comment that best summed up the anger and exasperation of the crowd came from the speaker who simply said, “Happiness among black girls is not a crime.”

Some 150 people came out to another rally at East Middle School this week as school was getting out. The group is demanding an end to child strip-searching and removal of the school administrators responsible for the children’s trauma and an apology.

Rather than information or an apology, school officials first denied the strip searching — claiming they were just carrying out medical evaluations — and then justified their action, citing the children’s behavior. In response to these denials, parents have shared a new hashtag #BelieveBlackGirlsBCSD.

THIS ATROCIOUS behavior by school officials must be seen in the context of racist policies and attitudes in the area, the sexist attitudes of school authorities who have strange ideas about girls’ behavior, and the lack of privacy rights for children in our schools.

Strip-searching, a practice that is normally associated with imprisonment, is not uncommon in U.S. schools. It has been successfully challenged in the courts numerous times.

A school district in Watertown, New York just settled a case for an undisclosed sum because a former female pupil was strip-searched in a search for drugs.

In Texas, school officials looking for a missing $50 strip-searched all the female sixth-grade choir members. That incident was provoked by a police officer who claimed that “girls like to hide things in their bras and panties.” Court rulings refer to Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches, which these school districts seem to not recognize.

Bill Martin of Justice and Unity of the Southern Tier argues that the treatment of these girls is “not an isolated incident” but a symptom of “a systemic problem of the criminalization of Black youth that local officials will not admit.”

“Binghamton, like much of upstate New York, is part of peripheral life in the U.S. these days,” Martin says. “Its once-proud shoe and then computer factories are shuttered or torn down, the IBM homestead and country club — Binghamton was IBM’s home town — are empty and collapsing.”

“And the opioid epidemic runs rampant,” Martin adds, “while the county government closes the mental health clinic, fudges overdose statistics and expands the policing, prosecution and jailing of substance use disorders. The result is that the county has the highest incarceration rate of any county in New York State, with all that entails.”

African Americans make up only 5 percent of the population of Binghamtom’s Broome County, but 28 percent of its jail inmates.

BINGHAMTON SCHOOLS have been described as pipelines to prison for Black and Hispanic young people, who make up over 40 percent of the school population.

Black youth and teens are more likely than whites to be suspended for drug use — as well as offenses that fall under the category of “disrespect” — which contributes to decreased future employment and college opportunities.

East Middle School’s treatment of the four Black girls fits into this pattern of suspicion and bias. Rather than providing a safe educational experience, the school is treating them as if they are criminals and already in prison before they even get out of middle school.

But the protests against this abuse are a sign that organizing that has taken place over years in the region is having an impact. As Martin explains:

Local Black activists led by Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow have cohered and expanded mass actions against police brutality, inequities in school suspensions and detentions, and now the traumatizing of Black girls by school administrators. They have had significant support from allied community organizations, youth and students.

Other fronts are in movement as well: The activist group TruthPharm has led a parallel and exceedingly powerful campaign speaking by and for families suffering from substance use disorders. Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier has for five years accelerated a local and regional struggle against mass incarceration.

Tuesday is a signal event in a long stream of struggles and alliances at the local level, often out of sight, but gathering strength.

Why should people come out to the next rally? What has happened to these girls and their families is reason enough. But this rally, like the ones that have preceded it, and the ones surely to follow, are part of a swelling tide against racialized injustice, inequities and the swelling school-to-prison pipeline that sustain it.

It is, in the eyes of many of us in Binghamton, a time of real hope that we can finally forge a decisive turning point towards a more just and sustainable community.

Further Reading

From the archives