On January 15, 2019, a Binghamton, NY school nurse and vice principal subjected four black middle school girls to a strip search because they were acting “giddy.” Rather than seeing “giddiness” as normal behavior for teenage girls, the school officials jumped to the conclusion that they were using drugs. They had two of the girls strip down to their bras and underpants; they asked the others to remove other articles of clothing. Their search did not turn up any drugs. Many in Binghamton have called for the firing of the two school officials responsible. The students’ parents issued a joint letter describing how the searches affected their daughters.
Sadly, this criminalization of young people, particularly students of color, is not new. Community protests in response to the strip-search allegations point to systemic criminalization of students of color. Black and brown children are disproportionately suspended and expelled at high rates for misbehavior in school. Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.
While some parent and youth-led efforts are helping to end the school to prison pipeline, incidents like the one in Binghamton show that much more needs to be done. Unfortunately, the federal government under the current administration is stepping back from its responsibilities to end the school to prison pipeline. In December 2018, the Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, recommended rescinding federal civil rights guidance to school districts on how to improve school disciplinary practices (Dear Colleague Letter, January 8, 2014).
For this reason, we applaud Governor Cuomo’s recent call for the State Education Department to investigate the incident in Binghamton. We need officials at every level to be engaged in this issue. We also need new resources, so that schools can improve their practices. Notably, schools need to train staff in cultural competency and in using “restorative justice” alternatives to hard discipline and detention. Syracuse City School District has seen such improvements by working collaboratively with teachers, staff, families, and community partners. Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget includes such funding, and at CCA, we believe this is a good start.
But the end to the school to prison pipeline cannot be done by government alone-neither by educational systems nor by the juvenile justice system. Community organizations, particularly those in communities most affected by school pushout, must be involved as full and equal partners. They know best that giggling teenagers are just that-not would-be criminals.