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A community is outraged over what they believe to be a discriminatory and humiliating ‘strip search’ of four 12-year-old Black girls at East Middle School in upstate Binghamton, New York.

According to a local community group, Progressive Leaders of Tomorrow, the girls were questioned and searched by a school nurse after appearing to be “giddy” and “hyper” during lunch. The girls claim they were asked to remove some of their clothing and they describe the experience as “humiliating.”

During a recent school board meeting, community members staged a protest demonstration and called for answers about what went wrong and why parents weren’t notified. The school board denies any such search took place and issued a statement asserting the school’s right to provide medical attention to students they observe behaving in unusual ways.

“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.”

The school also says they contacted the parents and the girls were not issued any suspensions, as the girls claimed. There doesn’t appear to be an video evidence which has become, in our current caught-on-camera era of exposure, a near-essential tool in proving incidences of racist mistreatment. After the story went viral on social media, the school district cited “misinformation being spread on social media” as a contributor to the hype around the situation.

So what exactly happened in that room, between the four girls and the school nurse? With two starkly contrasting stories, we may never know the full details of what happened, but we know enough about the poor treatment of Black students in America’s schools to believe the worst could be true. It is hard to not be suspicious in light of the string of events over the last year during which Black people around the country have been subjected to white people calling the police to report them for doing nothing more than being Black and existing in public spaces.

Seen as angry, loud, and aggressive, Black girls learn early on, that their physical appearance and personality traits will often be perceived as threatening to others. They learn that people will think them as too loud when they’re simply enjoying moments of merriment. They will be seen as aggressive when they defend themselves and they will be stereotyped as angry for being intolerant of mistreatment from others. This negative conditioning begins in kindergarten where Black girls begin being punished for daring to be Black girls trying to get an education.

The unfair treatment of Black children in schools continues to be a serious problem and for our Black girls, the situation is even more dire. Out-of-school suspension rates for Black students are startling—though only 16% of enrolled students in grades K-12, Black students represent 39% of suspensions. The African-American Policy Forum researched the treatment of Black girls in schools and its connection to incarceration (the “school-to-prison” pipeline, as its often referred to) and what they found was bleak and, frankly, unacceptable. Black girls are suspended six times as often as white girls, compared to Black boys who are suspended three times as often as white boys. It is clear now, more than ever, that, because of racist and sexist stereotypes, Black girls are extremely vulnerable to harsh sanctioning in schools and it affects their self-esteem, their motivation, and their willingness to actively participate in their education.

It is even worse in cities like Washington D.C., Boston, and New York City, where the rate increases to 17.8, 11 , and 10 times more, respectively. And when it comes to expulsions, the numbers are jaw-dropping—Black girls in New York City, for example, are fifty-three times more like to be expelled from school than white girls, while Black boys are ten times likely to be expelled than white boys. To make matters worse, the disproportionate punishment of Black girls in schools is completely unwarranted, as data shows they don’t act out any more than other girls.

Why aren’t other girls being treated this way? Better yet, why aren’t Black girls being extended the grace, compassion, and non-disciplinary support that other girls receive to keep them from being suspended and expelled?

We are in the midst of an ongoing and increasingly terrifying crisis. Black girls and young women are being targeted in unprecedented ways, inside and outside of schools. According to the Policy Forum, Black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the justice system and are the fastest growing population of people in the criminal justice system. Instead of being encouraged and nurtured into becoming their best selves, Black girls are being robbed of their joy and their promise by systems that continue to fail our communities.

Because of the a drastic shift in American politics, with the Trump administration calling for and enacting legislation that targets marginalized groups like undocumented immigrants, transgender people, and people living in poverty, we can’t afford for Black girls to be silenced. Black girls like Mari ‘Little Miss Flint’ Copeny are actively engaged in fighting against institutional oppression. Imagine a world in which Black girls are punished to the point of complete inaction and they don’t grow up to become the women who begin movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MuteRKelly or climb to the tops of flagpoles or scale the Statue of Liberty to call for and demand better treatment for our people?

If Black girls can’t simply go to school and learn to read and write without being subjected to violence, where can they go? Further, who will they become as a result of being treated so unjustly? The long-overdue moment has come when we must challenge ourselves and each other to fight harder against systems designed to hold them back from achieving their dreams.

Standing up for Black girls is no longer an option—it is an imperative.

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Feminista Jones is an author and activist currently residing in Philadelphia, PA. Her latest book, Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World From the Tweets to the Streets, is out January 2019 on Beacon Press.