Chanderlia Silva has laughter in her voice as she describes her daughter to ESSENCE.
The 12-year-old is a shy girl, Silva notes, although once she gets comfortable she can be super silly. She loves being around people; she loves music (it always came blaring from the speaker in her room); she likes to dance and play with makeup, try on clothes and hang out with her girls.
So, when the music stopped coming from her daughter’s room, when she started sleeping in all day…behavior that was not like the bubbly “girly girl” that her mother knew and loved, Silva became desperately worried.
“I felt like she was going into a stage of depression,” the 28-year-old mother of four told ESSENCE last week, her voice sobering. “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.”
These were the changes Silva noticed in her daughter after she and 3 other Black and Latina girls from East Middle School in Binghamton, N.Y. were allegedly strip-searched by school officials after being accused of using drugs because they were “hyper and giddy” during lunch, an accusation that rattled the mother.
“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. They get to see their friends. You know, you’re not in class with all your friends,” the mother emphasized. “So once lunchtime comes you actually get to connect with your friends, and talk, and laugh, and just be yourself.”
The incident has rocked New York state, as well as the Binghamton School District, as community members and activists alike demand justice on behalf of the children.
Silva’s daughter was not the only one who suffered from the treatment at the hands of the school district. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is representing all the families and pursuing justice and vindication on behalf of the girls, noted the 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 last week. “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.”
“They also are exhibiting signs of loss of appetite, sleeping often – behaviors that we know are associated with trauma,” she added.
Now, about a full month after the searches occurred, the families of the girls involved are still dealing with the fallout and the physical, emotional and psychological impact it has had on their children.
One of the things that infuriates Silva the most was that she was never called prior to the search on Jan. 15. The mother was only told that her daughter and her friends were sent to the nurse for being “too giddy,” she said. She only found out the extent of what happened when her daughter returned home from school.
“I couldn’t understand why my 12-year-old daughter had to go through those procedures, and I’m 28 years old, and I haven’t not once had to go through that,” she told ESSENCE. “It makes me feel like our kids are being exposed to way too much.”
“If the school has a suspicion of anything, the first thing [the principal] should have done was call me,” she added. “The procedure was just totally incorrect…And not only that, that school has cameras, so it should have been nothing for them to go back to their cameras to see where the girls were. But instead, they just went off of assumptions, which I feel 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.”
“I feel like sometimes educators feel like because we’re in a lower class, that these children come from families who don’t care, and that’s not true,” Silva added. “I’m a single mom and I care about my kids. I want them to have a better future. I want them to be better than me. So, for that to happen it’s just not right.”
Her daughter has been seeing one of the members of Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow, a local grassroots racial justice organization to help her work through the incident.
Despite her feelings, Silva allowed her daughter to return to school the following day, noting that, “In my house, education is very important.”
But while at school, she said her daughter felt uncomfortable, and like she was being followed. A school board member apparently recommended an alternative school for the girls, which furthered uprooted the girls, and is not at all a substitute for a standard education.
According to Silva, there is only a math and English Language Arts teacher, which takes away from every other subject.
“Then, once they started going and we found out how it was…they just sit in front of a computer screen. For me, how is that learning? That’s not learning,” she added, noting her daughter is only in school from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. “I feel like [my daughter] definitely needs that structure of a school, a supportive school, of teachers that believe in her and wants to see her do good as well.”
The NAACP LDF also staunchly decried the placement of the children in alternative school.
“An alternative school placement is usually a disciplinary sanction, and indeed, under the Code of Conduct for the school district, it explicitly says that an alternative school is a placement as a response for serious misbehavior. In this situation, the girls have done absolutely nothing wrong, so the idea that they would be put in an alternative school is wholly inappropriate,” McClellan said.
Since speaking to ESSENCE last week, McClellan noted that the district finally committed to enrolling the girls at West Middle School, another school in the district, as of Wednesday, Feb. 13. but the arrangement is still subject to ongoing negotiations about their placement for next school year.
The civil rights organization also released a letter last week requesting changes to Binghamton Schools, apologies to the girls, and disciplinary action against the principal, assistant principal, and school nurse at East Middle School—all of whom were involved in the alleged strip-searches, among other demands.
“This incident is really the epitome of a tendency to see what is, again, normal youth playfulness – in this case we have girls laughing and, according to the principal, ‘being giddy’ around lunchtime – which for any of us who have 12-year-olds, or who have been 12-year-olds, we know is pretty typical, normal behavior,” McClellan noted. “The idea that the response would be a search and suspicion of drug use just really shows how bias is at play in responding to the normal behavior of Black and Latino youth. I think in terms of, again, how this connects to education inequity, it really shows how schools can become places that are not welcoming and safe for youth of color because their behavior is being interpreted in this way.”
To that end, the LDF, and the parents also want a racial climate survey conducted in the district to ensure better practices in the future, inclusive of a complete ban on strip searches.
“The reality that this is likely symptomatic of climate issues within the district. This didn’t happen in a vacuum, but that there are likely racial and gender biases that exist within the district that need to be addressed to prevent other students from being singled out and stereotyped in this way because of race and gender,” McClellan said.
And Silva also thinks it is important for the school district to have staff that can relate to.
“The school district should continue to make strong efforts to increase diversity when recruiting their educators. It’s definitely important for our Black girls to see Black educators and people that they can relate to,” Silva said.
Equally important to the mother, are teachers who actually care about their students.
“If you do have a student that you think is under the influence of something, your first thing shouldn’t be to criminalize them. I feel like they should try to figure out what’s going on, because it’s not normal for a child to be under the influence,” she added. “[There] should be a lot more mental and social support. If they want our kids to be comfortable, then they should try to get to know them. A lot of teachers, after a certain amount of time they look at teaching as just a job, and it’s not just a job. A lot of teachers spend more time with our children than parents do. They should just be more caring and more concerned for children that they may feel is going through other things.”
Still, Silva is grateful for the assistance of organizations like Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow and the LDF, who stepped into validate her and her daughter’s experience. She cautioned parents to listen to their children when things seem awry.
“When things constantly get swept under the rug, it gives those administrators, those people of higher power, it makes them feel like they can do what they want, and it’s not okay,” she insisted. “We have to definitely come together as a community and build our children up, and before they can be exposed to different things, teach and educate them at home so they’re not placed in these positions.”