Holding up signs that read “#BelieveBlackGirls” and chanting “protect our children,” more than 100 students, families and concerned community members rallied outside of East Middle School on Tuesday afternoon in the cold and snow to protest the alleged strip search of four 12-year-old black girls by school officials on Jan. 15.
Organized by the Progressive Leaders Of Tomorrow (PLOT), a grassroots organization that aims to empower and liberate marginalized members of society, the rally called for the resignation of Assistant Principal Michelle Raleigh, Principal Tim Simonds and the school nurse.
Roseanne Vasquez, 33, of Binghamton, said she attended the rally to call for the resignation of the school officials responsible and to support the four girls.
“I came here in support of the four girls and all the students who are mistreated here — black, white, Spanish, every minority,” Vasquez said. “A lot of procedures, a lot of protocol, needs to change and I honestly think that the people who were involved in the incident should be fired immediately.”
For Tyron Brown, a second-year graduate student studying public affairs, it was important to participate in the rally as these alleged incidents affect the whole community, not only black women.
“Don’t think that it’s just a black issue or for just black women — black men need to be here too,” Brown said. “That’s why I showed up. And not just us, not just people of color, not just black people but white people need to be here too because we’re all part of the problem if we don’t do anything about it. This is our community.”
According to PLOT’s Facebook post, the four students were strip-searched by the school nurse and Raleigh — on the behest of Simonds — on the suspicion of possessing drugs. No drugs were found and the students’ parents weren’t contacted to obtain their consent for the searches, according to the post.
In response to the post, the Binghamton City School District released a statement on Jan. 24 maintaining that school officials had not conducted a strip search but rather a medical evaluation. According to the statement, medical evaluations may require the removal of bulky outside clothing to expose an arm.
“School officials acted in accordance with the board policy,” the statement read. “We want to reiterate that no students were strip-searched, nor were they punished as a result of the incident in question and they were allowed to return to class after being evaluated.”
However, in a joint statement released on Jan. 25, the parents of the four girls upheld their daughters’ testimonies that they were strip-searched at the middle school. According to the statement, three of the girls complied to sobriety tests and a strip search while one of the girls complied to the tests but refused to remove her clothing for the search, which caused her to be sent to in-school suspension.
“We, as parents, did not consent to these searches,” the statement read. “All four girls missed several days of instruction after this experience, as they no longer feel safe at East Middle. During this time, school officials failed to communicate with us in any meaningful way, and often failed to return our calls. It wasn’t until the community attended the school board meeting that the administration began to express an interest in helping us transition the girls back into school.”
The incident has drawn increasing media attention in recent days. On Wednesday afternoon, a day after the rally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in a press release that he will call on the New York Education Department to launch an investigation on the strip-search allegations and has directed the New York State Police to offer their assistance to local authorities.
“The allegations that 12-year-old girls were strip searched for drugs after being perceived as ‘hyper and giddy’ at a Binghamton middle school are deeply disturbing and raise serious concerns of racial and gender bias,” the statement read. “Asking a child to remove her clothing — and then commenting on her body — is shaming, humiliating, traumatic sexual harassment. In New York, we have zero tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind, especially in our schools, and we stand with those who are calling for clarity on this troubling incident.”
According to Roderick Douglass, PLOT’s social media coordinator, the organization is going to follow the wishes of the families of the four girls and continue to advocate for them.
“We follow what the family says to do and if they say everything stops, it stops, and if they say we can keep moving, we’re going to do it,” Douglass said. “This isn’t about our [organization], or any other organization, this is about what the survivors and the family want.”
On Jan. 29, the day of the rally, the Binghamton City School District released another statement reiterating that there was no evidence that a strip search was conducted by administration. According to the statement, the school is using an independent third-party firm, Ferrara Fiorenza PC, to conduct a review of the incident.
“We realize that even when policies and procedures are followed, that does not preclude those involved, either directly or indirectly, from being affected,” the statement read. “The attention drawn by the media has affected those children, their families, our administrators, teachers and the district as a whole. It’s important to understand the district is required by law to protect the privacy and personal integrity of our students. It is a responsibility we take seriously. We remain committed to working with these families to support their children’s success.”
However, following the release of the most recent statement from Binghamton City School District, Korin Kirk, a member of the Binghamton Board of Education, released a personal statement on Facebook claiming her support for the four girls. According to her post, Kirk also experienced traumatic experiences while attending Binghamton City Schools, including East Middle School.
“Those who needed this incident as a wake-up call that there is more work to be done haven’t been paying attention,” Kirk wrote. “This is one incident of many. I believe those girls. I believe those girls when they say they were harmed.”
According to Douglass, it is only through the support of the community that change and accountability is possible.
“A lot of people across Binghamton had conversations with their children this week and said, ‘Don’t let the nurse ask you to remove your clothes, do not let a principal search you without my consent,’ and that’s important,” Douglass said. “We think kids, children, are a little safer than they were last week and we’re just going to keep the information going and continue community building and continue to let people realize that people have the power.”