Unwarranted abuse of authority

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The strip search of a Quebec teen at her school for drugs, by school staff, is an unjustified breach of her privacy and assault on her dignity. If school officials can defend such a move to root out a bit of marijuana, searches of body cavities can't be far behind.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/02/2015 (2785 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The strip search of a Quebec teen at her school for drugs, by school staff, is an unjustified breach of her privacy and assault on her dignity. If school officials can defend such a move to root out a bit of marijuana, searches of body cavities can’t be far behind.

School boards in Manitoba and elsewhere in Canada ought to take this example of abuse of authority as a lesson in the perils of unchecked arrogance. The stripping of the teen was initially defended by Quebec’s government, but now it appears it, too, has recognized the offensive nature of the search.

Education Minister Yves Bolduc is reviewing provincial guidelines that permit strip searches of students, but said they are allowed in some circumstances and only if they are done respectfully.

CP Quebec Education Minister Yves Bolduc

There may be an extreme case in which a strip search is required to protect other students, but this one was far from it. The 15-year-old sent a text to a friend offering to sell drugs — something she said was a joke. She was taken to an office and ordered to disrobe behind a blanket held by one female staff member while another searched her garments, including bra and underwear, for marijuana.

No pot was found. She said she was not allowed to call her parents before the search took place.

Hardly a case of clear and present danger. Drugs on school property are a problem, generally, but as drugs go, pot is the least of the worries. There was no indication weapons were involved.

And there were other, more reasonable, ways to deal with the issue. School officials might have called her parents, told her to empty her pockets, her locker and her backpack.

A student could have found any of that insulting and an embarrassment or an overreaction. But it would have left a young person’s dignity intact.

Finally, school officials have the ability to send a student home for a day if they are still uncertain as to a teen’s involvement in the alleged misconduct. They can call police in for serious misconduct. It depends on the credibility of the reports it gets and the level of threat.

All of these actions will send a clear message to, and protect, students. Instead, what the students at Quebec City’s âcole Secondaire de Neufch¢tel learned a week ago is they are easy marks for teachers and principals who are insensitive to the boundaries of personal privacy and quick to use unwarranted measures, disproportionate to the suspected misconduct.

The Supreme Court has ruled school officials can search students if they have reasonable grounds to believe rules have been broken. This is to protect students, to keep order and discipline so the school is a safe place conducive to learning. That decision, however, was about a principal searching two students, not stripping them. Indeed, officials at other schools admit they frisk students, they search lockers and backpacks. All reasonable actions any student or parent would understand.

Manitoba schools have seen cameras installed in their halls and bathrooms, and police have become commonplace in some. There are circumstances that call for extraordinary measures, such as threats to individuals or property, and when they arise, quick action must be taken and police can be called in.

But the Quebec City incident shows that for some, young people are too easy a mark. There is a risk of a creeping authoritarianism as the right of students to privacy, especially of their person, is chipped away by an overriding concern for safety, discipline and order.

Stripping students and going through their underwear is not just humiliating. It teaches them their rights are fragile, indeed. âcole Secondaire de Neufch¢tel reduced those rights to a polite fiction. Quebec’s government needs to state the Neufch¢tel strip-search crossed the line and write rules that will curb similar abuses in the future.

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