Four girls at N.Y. middle school subjected to 'dehumanizing' strip search, lawsuit says

The allegations that girls were strip-searched at school led Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ask the state Department of Education to investigate.

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By Erik Ortiz

Four middle school girls left the cafeteria and were walking down the hallway, talking and laughing, when they say their principal at East Middle School in Binghamton, New York, stopped them.

The girls — all of them 12 and either black or Latina — were taken to the health office, and without any explanation, subjected to "discriminatory, dehumanizing and unlawful strip searches," according to a lawsuit filed Monday by their families and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

East Middle School in Binghamton, New York.Google

The suit, which lays out claims of racial bias and a violation of the girls' civil rights during the Jan. 15 incident, is the latest salvo after the Binghamton City School District denied any strip searches had occurred and said it was hiring an independent firm to review the allegations.

The claims also led New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to announce a state Department of Education investigation.

"Asking a child to remove her clothing — and then commenting on her body — is shaming, humiliating, traumatic sexual harassment," Cuomo said in January.

According to the suit, which was filed in federal court in the Northern District of New York, a nurse tested the girls' vitals, searched their physical belongings along with other school officials, and subjected each of them to "humiliating and inappropriate comments about their bodies."

The nurse is also accused of conducting a sobriety test on one of the girls, and instructing her to remove her clothing, which she refused. Ultimately, the suit says, no contraband or evidence of wrongdoing was found.

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The suit says school staff never contacted the girls' parents prior to conducting the searches, but that the principal, Tim Simonds, later told parents that he sent the girls to the health office because he thought they had been acting "hyper" and "giddy."

"The laughter and giddiness of adolescent children are not objective facts giving rise to a reasonable suspicion justifying an intrusive search by school officials," the suit says.

The girls' allegations that a strip search occurred has divided people in Binghamton, a city near the Pennsylvania border with about 45,000 residents who are 75 percent white.

Activists have led rallies outside of East Middle School, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund joined in the federal suit, which is seeking compensatory damages and for the school district to enact policies that would prevent this from happening again.

In the wake of public outrage in January, the Binghamton City School District said in a statement that "school officials did not conduct a strip search."

Instead, officials said, "misinformation" was spread on social media concerning the incident and that medical evaluations that are conducted may require a person to remove "bulky outside clothing to expose an arm so that vitals like blood pressure and pulse can be accessed."

The city's school board also said that none of the girls were punished and they were permitted to return to class.

But the suit says that one of the girls was given an in-school suspension "without explanation," and that all of them felt traumatized and missed school for several days.

The girls were temporarily placed in an alternative school after feeling "embarrassed, humiliated and targeted for unwanted attention," the suit adds.

The suit says that all of the school officials involved in the search are white, and it claimed that the school's assistant principal, Michelle Raleigh, said she was "afraid" to be left alone with the girls and that the nurse branded them as loud, disrespectful and having "attitudes" — which evoke "all too common stereotypes about black and Latina girls."

The Binghamton City School District did not immediately returned a request for comment Tuesday. The state Department of Education said it does not comment on pending litigation.

As part of its investigation under Cuomo, a spokeswoman said the department is working with New York State Police, the Center for School Safety and local officials to determine next steps and to "ensure no similar situations occur in the future."

"Clearly, this situation is extremely concerning and we share the governor's goal of learning the facts,” spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in a statement.