More than 100 residents of Binghamton, New York braved freezing temperatures and snow flurries Tuesday to march in support of four black students who were allegedly strip-searched at a local middle school.
The incident, in which a school nurse and assistant principal allegedly forced the 12-year-old girls to disrobe under suspicion of drug possession, has drawn national attention to the 45,000-person town. But it has also stoked what residents say are long-standing frustrations around race in the former manufacturing hub.
“I think that it shows how desperate we are for change,” Binghamton High School graduate Roseanne Vasquez said of Tuesday’s protest. “It shows how desperate we are to be heard. And how hurt the community is that this happened.”
Representatives for the students say the girls were detained by officials at Binghamton’s East Middle School for more than an hour for appearing “hyper and giddy" after their lunch break. One of the students says she was made to take off her shirt and pants, while two other students say they were made to take off their shirts.
A fourth girl, who refused to remove her clothing, was given an in-school suspension, according to statements issued by their families and local advocacy group Progressive Leaders for Tomorrow.
The school district maintains that no strip search occurred.
The incident quickly sparked backlash, drawing nearly 200 people to a school board meeting in which concerned parents demanded the removal of the principal, assistant principal and school nurse. The scandal also spurred coverage in national outlets and support from local civil rights groups like the NAACP.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told The Daily Beast her organization had been in touch with the families about supporting their students, adding that she thought they could have a strong legal case.
“There is no justification imaginable for the way they were treated and for the harm that the school officials have done to them, the disruption to their education, and the lasting trauma of being subjected to such an indignity that in a place that is supposed to be safe and nurturing,” Lieberman said.
In a statement, the school board denied school officials had conducted a strip search. They said it is district policy to conduct physical examinations when students exhibit behavior that “warrants further evaluation,” and that such examinations can include the removal of bulky items of clothing.
“School officials acted in accordance with the board policy,” the board said. “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.”
In response, the girls’ parents issued a statement doubling down on their claim, and accusing board members of failing to communicate with them “in any meaningful way.” Approximately 120 people rallied outside the middle school in support of the girls on Tuesday, despite class being released hours early due to inclement weather.
That same day, school board member Korin Kirk released an independent statement saying she believed the girls and felt the board had erred in its handling of the situation.
“There is a massive divide in this city between the experiences of black and minority residents and non-black residents,” Kirk wrote. “There is a massive divide between low income residents of all shades, and those with more money and resources… We need everyone to take part in the rebuilding and restoration in the aftermath of what has happened here, for the betterment and future for each of our children.”
The sentiment echoed those of many, including professor William Martin of the State University of New York at Binghamton, who has taught in the area for more than two decades. Writing on his blog, Martin claimed the school board had long failed to address troubling statistics, such as the fact that black students are suspended at 2.5 times the rate of white students in the district.
Others pointed to prior troubling incidents in the area. In September, four school security officers pushed a Binghamton High School student to the ground in an confrontation captured on video. Multiple students said they heard the officers use the N-word with the student, who is black. The district said at the time that they were conducting an internal investigation into the matter.
Vasquez said incidents like these still struck a chord with her, more than a decade after she graduated from Binghamton High.
“Even back then and to this day, there was racism in that school,” she said. “I felt growing up that our voices were never heard, and I still feel that way—that the kids, their voices don't get heard.
“And us as adults, we still don't get heard,” she added. “We have to have situations like this, for 200 people to come and scream and yell at the board, for them to pay attention to us.”
Martin struck a more hopeful tone. He pointed to recent changes, such as a court order limiting juvenile detention in the county jail, and said he was confident that the recent surge in community activism would bring about change.
“Our district attorneys and our public attorneys are having to respond to local activists, which wasn’t imaginable five years ago,” he said. “There's still a long way to go but it’s remarkable how people have mobilized.”