27 January 2019

Incident at a Binghamton Middle School


O
n 15 January something happened at East Middle School in the Binghamton (N.Y) City School District. What it was is a subject of disagreement. Four twelve-year-old girls were involved. According to their parents
The girls were individually taken to a private space in the Health Office and held for over an hour. They were subjected to sobriety tests and observations, and told to remove their clothing to be searched for drugs and other illegal substances. Three of our girls complied to the tests and observations, as well as the searches, and were then allowed to return to class. One of our girls complied to the tests, but refused to remove her clothing for the search, and was sent to In-School Suspension.
According to a statement by a local community organization the reason for the search was that they appeared “giddy and hyper” during lunchtime.
The school district says:
School officials did not conduct a strip search. … When conducting medical evaluation, it may require the removal of bulky outside clothing to expose an arm so that vitals like blood pressure and pulse can be assessed. This is not the same as a strip search. … 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.
Just to make things absolutely clear, the school officials accused the girls (or their parents) of lying. The exact phrase they use is “a lot of misinformation being spread through social media from third parties”; the “third parties” in question, however, are the girls’ parents, and the misinformation was provided (allegedly) by the girls.
Well, okay, girls do lie. So do school officials. I’ve had officials lie to my face about events in which I was present and they were not. But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead, as the old saying has it, and these officials are not those officials. But not knowing these girls, or their parents, or these school officials, I have nothing but my prejudices to fall back on, and they do not favor school officialdom.
So, as always, caveat emptor. What then do we know about the events of that long-ago day? Well, first—the four girls appeared “giddy and hyper” at lunch. The school authorities indirectly support this in a mealy-mouthed sort of way, observing that “The administrators who work in the middle school every day are trained to monitor and evaluate students and recognize behavior that is out of character” and this may lead to “physical and medical evaluation.” So I’m tentatively inclined to accept this as plausible.
Second, this led the authorities to suspect drug use. None of the statements I have seen are explicit on this point—I’d sure as hell like to know what drug they thought was involved or in what way twelve-year-old girls being “giddy and hyper” (assuming that the phrase did indeed represent the observations) suggested drug use. But the statements do seem to agree that the girls were under suspicion for drug use.
Now according to the parents “The girls were individually taken to a private space in the Health Office and held for over an hour. They were subjected to sobriety tests and observations”. The school authorities indirectly agree: “When students exhibit behavior that warrants further evaluation the district has an obligation to ensure their health and wellbeing, which may include physical and medical evaluation. … School officials acted in accordance with the board policy.”
The parents say the girls were “told to remove their clothing to be searched for drugs and other illegal substances”. A district statement says that “A student may, under current law and policy, be searched in a school building by an administrator when the administrator reasonably suspects that a student’s health is in danger or is in possession of a substance that may harm themselves or others.” I will take that tentatively as confirmation.
According to the girls all three of those who complied were required to take off their shirts; two of them in addition had to take off their pants, and one had to take off her leggings as well. The district statement says “These searches involve an administrator requesting a student to empty their pockets, remove their shoes and/or remove their jackets.” The school authorities’ statement says “When conducting medical evaluation, it may require the removal of bulky outside clothing to expose an arm so that vitals like blood pressure and pulse can be assessed” and reasserts that there was no strip search. The school authorities’ claim might apply to having the girls take their shirts off; they offer no justification for the rest. The only possible conclusion is that the school authorities are accusing the girls of lying.
This applies also to the fourth girl—who refused to undress and was given in-house suspension. The authorities claim that no student was “punished as a result of the incident in question.” (I assume that in-house suspension is a punishment.) As I review the situation here I have to admit that I am increasingly having trouble taking anything the authorities have said seriously. But anyway, it appears that they are calling her a liar as well.
The school authorities now appear to be claiming that they notified the parents of the children. “As part of the typical procedure, parents are contacted to inform them of the precautions and procedures that were taken. … School officials acted in accordance with the board policy.” The parents however say “We, as parents, did not consent to these searches. We, as parents, were not notified by the school before or after these searches occurred. Instead, our children informed us, and we had to follow up with the school the next day.” Obviously, I have no way of determining who is telling the truth and who is lying on this point, but I have a great deal of trouble believing that parents who had been properly notified would have to resort to attending a school board meeting with members of their community in order to get any action taken.
As far as the aftermath is concerned, the parents say:
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.
And the school district?
Unfortunately, our students shared that these actions have had the unintended consequences of making the students feel traumatized. We sincerely apologize for the impact this has had and are working with these families to support their children’s success.
As I said, my personal experience is not favorable to believing school authorities about anything without some external verification. I do however have a few observations. The claim that administrators are able to “recognize behavior that is out of character” for particular students is laughable. Given the apparent size of the school I doubt that they knew anything about these particular students until somebody decided that high spirits meant high students or whatever it really was. And I personally find it implausible that the school kept the parents properly informed of what was going on; subsequent events would have gone very differently had they done so.
On the central issue, however, it is difficult to decide. There seems to be general agreement on the main outline of events: school officials suspected the girls were doing drugs, gave them physical and medical examinations, and searched them for contraband. But the school authorities appear to be insisting that the search involved at most emptying pockets, taking off shoes, or removing a jacket. The medical exam involved no more than baring an arm for checking pulse and blood pressure. The girls on the other hand describe being required to strip down to their underwear as part of the effort to search them for drugs. There’s really no way to reconcile these statements, and I see no reason why the girls would be as traumatized as their parents describe if all that had happened is what the school district (indirectly) maintained.
The thing is, I don’t know these particular girls—how reliable they are, under what circumstances they told their stories, how prone they are to fantasy and embroidery. The same goes for these particular school officials—though as a breed I have found them to be unreliable and treacherous. I can make up a story about four hypothetical girls who freaked out on being unjustly suspected of drug use and who embroidered their story of oppression by relating a strip search that never happened. By the same token I can make up a story about hypothetical overzealous school officials who—certain that four students were on drugs—went way too far in pursuing their suspicions and then engaged in a hasty cover-up.
But as it stands, I don’t have much basis to decide on. On the one hand I really don’t see any good reason why the girls would make up such a story, whereas I do see excellent reasons for the authorities to deny it. On the other hand the school authorities are adamant that “no students were strip searched” and they would be extremely foolish to make such as statement without rock solid ground to stand on. Again, the girls’ evident trauma seems to require more of an explanation than the school has been able to suggest.
As I say, I personally am inclined to believe the girls. Middle school sucks enough without being unjustly accused of doing drugs—or of anything else for that matter. I hope they can find a way to get back into a school environment where they feel safe again—an environment where learning can happen. And I very much hope that the school officials can figure out exactly what went wrong in this incident and take appropriate steps to fix it—because something clearly did go wrong here.

And, by the way, if something seemed a bit off-kilter in this story as I presented it, I can’t help wondering—if I told you that the four girls in this narrative were black, would that change your perspective any?
I thought it might.

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