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Her Body is Not School Property

Today, parents of four Black girls in the Binghamton City School District came forward to report that their daughters had been forced to comply with a school strip-search. School staff had apparently perceived the 12-year-old girls as “hyper and giddy” and decided to search them for drugs. Local advocacy group Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow (PLOT) reports that the girls had to strip down to their underwear. One girl who refused received an in-school suspension. During the search, the nurse commented on a girl’s skin and breasts. The District denies the report.

As a former teacher, I am deeply skeptical of the District’s denial. I say this because as a teacher, I was part of a culture that scrutinized students’ bodies. Were they in uniform? Did they have their lanyards on? Were their shoes the right color? What about their socks? Did their vests have the right logo? Were their shirts tucked in?

I never participated in or knew of strip-searching at my school, but it does not require a great imaginative leap to see that as the natural extension of this culture of scrutiny. When we treat students’, and especially girls’, bodies as objects that must “fit in” to the school setting, it becomes easy to see them as just that–objects. School property subject to school control.

This is how it plays out: You can already ask her to take off non-uniform jackets. So, it follows that you can ask her to remove more clothing for a strip search. You can then comment on her body as she undresses, because she is not a person, she is an object that must comply.

This culture of treating bodies as school property is even more devastating for Black girls and other girls of color. Black girls are seen as more “adult,” and less needing of nurturing and protection than their white peers. Through this lens of racial and gender bias, it follows that schools don’t think it’s normal for Black preteen girls to be silly and giddy—perhaps because it departs from the “angry Black woman” stereotype that so many buy into. They also don’t think about the embarrassment or trauma that strip-searches cause. It follows that they don’t see these strip-searches as what they are–sexual harassment. If they see the girls as mature and not needing protection, they can pretend to themselves that the search will not cause harm.

We know better. Asking a child to remove her clothing—and then commenting on her body—is shaming, humiliating, traumatic sexual harassment. Schools do this in smaller ways every day through dress code policies, but this crosses every line.

It is also questionable whether such a search is constitutional. While Supreme Court case Safford Unified School District v. Redding technically allows strip searches, they must be “reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction.” In Safford, it was not enough that a student reported that another student may have brought disallowed prescription pills into school. This was not sufficient suspicion to warrant a strip search of an eighth-grade girl.

Under that standard, appearing “hyper and giddy” would certainly not be enough to justify a strip search of four 12-year-old girls. As Justice Stevens (who concurred and dissented) stated, “[i]t does not require a constitutional scholar to conclude that a nude search of a 13-year old child is an invasion of constitutional rights of some magnitude.”

As this story develops and advocates fight for justice for the girls, we must remember that this is one manifestation of a much larger culture of unfair, harmful scrutiny of girls in schools. This incident must be investigated and addressed, and so must all school policies that treat girls’ bodies as school property.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.