The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has upped the ante and escalated its efforts to get justice on behalf of the 4 Black and Latina middle school girls who were subject to “unlawful, intrusive and demeaning searches” earlier this year at East Middle School in Binghamton, New York.
The civil rights organization is representing the families of the children involved in the case and, on Thursday evening, sent a letter to the school district demanding changes to Binghamton Schools, apologies to the girls and disciplinary action against the Principal, Assistant Principal and school nurse at East Middle School, who were all involved in the alleged strip-searches of the 12-year-olds.
The incident started on Jan 15, when the girls were questioned and strip-searched by the school nurse and assistant principal of their school merely for appearing “hyper and giddy during their lunch hour.”
The backlash was swift in the New York state community, with 200 community members gathering at a board meeting about a week and a half after the incident, demanding answers as to how the school could have allowed this treatment of the girls.
By the end of January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he asked the State Department of Education to step in and investigate the allegations.
In its letter to the school district, the LDF notes that the girls were originally approached by school principal Tim Simonds, who asked them where they were headed. The girls were laughing during this conversation, and after that Simonds, along with Assistant Principal Michelle Raleigh escorted them to the school’s health office, without telling the girls why they were being taken there.
The girls were held in the school health office for about an hour, while school nurse Mary Ellen Eggleston examined them separately, without any notification or consent from any of the girls’ parents, giving them a vitals check and a sobriety check before searching them.
All of the adults involved in the search of the girls are white.
The LDF notes in its letter that, “The searches varied amongst the girls, but all girls were made to remove at least some of their outer clothing, in some cases exposing their undergarments”
The letter also alleges that the school nurse made “embarrassing and humiliating comments about some of the girls’ bodies and physical condition.”
The girls were then returned to their classes but were not allowed to contact their parents, even though they asked to. Simonds then contacted three of their parents, but only told them that their daughters were sent to the office for a vitals check because they were “hyper” and “giddy.” According to the LDF letter, he did not tell the parents that the children had been put through a sobriety test, or a strip search.
“The girls have been traumatized by the January 15 Searches. They feel humiliated because they were forced to expose their bodies and were subject to embarrassing comments. They feel their dignity was violated by adults whom they trusted in what should have been a safe educational setting. And they are confused about why they were targeted for such degrading treatment by school staff,” the letter reads.
The girls have reportedly shown signs of depression and trauma since the incident, such as loss of appetite and excessive sleeping.
And, not only have they been emotionally and psychologically upended, but physically as well.
Feeling unsafe and uncomfortable returning to their old school, the girls were given placement in an alternative school, which the LDF described as “wholly inappropriate,” citing district code that acknowledges that alternative school placement is a disciplinary sanction.
The LDF alleges that the school district violated the girls’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and discriminated against the children based on their race and gender.
As such, the LDF has issued 10 very specific demands to bring about much-needed changes to the school district, as well as to help bring justice to the girls and their families.
The letter demands that the district immediately allow the girls to enroll in the other standard school within the district, West Middle School. as well as giving them compensatory school work and tutoring for the days they have missed, as well as the adjustment of their grades once assignments have been completed so that their grades and school careers don’t suffer.
The families are also seeking payment for the mental health and social-emotional support of each student on a bi-weekly basis, or as needed, until their graduation.
The letter further demands a written apology from the principal, assistant principal and school nurse, acknowledging the incident as it occurred, as well as “appropriate disciplinary actions” for the adults involved, “up to and including termination.”
The demands, as mentioned before however, are not just about the health and success of the girls, but the health and success of the district itself.
The families have further demanded a revision of district policy to completely prohibit strip searches, as well as document all searches of students and make the aggregated information publicly available.
The letter also calls for the training of all school personnel on the constitutional rights of students, as well as a survey to assess the racial climate in the district.
“Research has shown that stereotypes lead adults to perceive Black and Latina girls as less innocent than white girls, and needing less nurturing, protection, and support. These stereotypical perceptions impact how school staff treat Black and Latina girls as inherently suspicious, threatening, dangerous, and deserving of harsh punishment,” the LDF writes in its letter. “Data on school discipline in the District is consistent with this pernicious stereotyping: girls of color constitute 51 percent of girls in the District, but girls of color make up approximately 70.6 percent of all suspensions of girls in the District. While only 4.4 percent of white girls are suspended in the District, 12.4 percent of Black girls and 11.1 percent of Latina girls are subjected to the same punishment.”
The letter added: “This type of punitive and unempathetic treatment based on racial and gender bias also explains how Principal Simonds could interpret the laughter and excitement of Black and Latina middle school girls as suspicious evidence supporting such extreme measures as a strip search, rather than the innocent playfulness of children.”
And the LDF is clearly firm in that it wants the demands of their clients met, giving the district thirty days from the date of the letter to make changes.
“If you fail to comply with the above demands within thirty days from the date of this letter, our clients may file a civil action addressing…the causes of action and events described in this letter,” the letter reads.