POLITICS

Quebec education minister wants to tighten school strip-search rules

02/18/2015 06:20 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT
QUEBEC - Quebec Education Minister Yves Bolduc says he wants to tighten the rules surrounding the controversial practice of strip searches of students in high schools in the province.

Bolduc said Wednesday that he's ordered an independent expert to look into two such cases recently in Quebec — one in the provincial capital that has caused waves this week and another in the Beauce region.

Just one day earlier, Bolduc had said the practice was legal and therefore authorized, to the extent that it was conducted in a manner that was "very respectful" to the student.

Bolduc said in the legislature Tuesday that a strip search is permitted under "strict" guidelines and in a "respectful" manner when student security is at issue.

On Wednesday, Bolduc told the legislature he was taking the matter seriously and ordered an independent probe into the cases.

"We will judge on the facts of what needs to be done in the future," said Bolduc, adding he'll wait for a report before intervening.

The issue surfaced after a 15-year-old girl told the Journal de Quebec she felt violated after being strip-searched because the school suspected her of selling drugs.

Bolduc's response drew the ire of the opposition parties, caused concern among educators and raised eyebrows of civil rights advocates right across the country.

Many contend the act was abusive and the teen's parents were not informed before the search on Feb. 12 at Neufchatel High School.

The girl's mother told the newspaper she's considering legal action, saying she considered the search "excessive."

A spokeswoman for Bolduc said Wednesday the education department is verifying under what circumstances students can be strip-searched if school authorities suspect them of selling drugs.

The guidelines used in Quebec were drafted in 2010 in conjunction with the Quebec provincial police.

That document cites a 1998 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that school searches were permitted practice providing they are "reasonable."

In that case, the high court ruled school officials are responsible for security on school property and said the search of a male student where a bag of marijuana was discovered hidden in his socks was not a violation of his constitutional rights.

The issue of strip searches in schools is not specifically mentioned, but Quebec policy noted the court ruled students cannot expect a full protection of their privacy while in school.

The Quebec policy states that "teachers and school authorities have the obligation to provide a safe environment and to maintain order and discipline."

The Parti Quebecois says despite high court rulings, the Liberals should ban the controversial search practice outright. At the very least, it should be made clear that no such search take place without parental consent.

"We need parental consent. It is necessary that parents be notified. We must not forget that these are minors," said Nicole Leger, the PQ education critic.

The Quebec City school board said a student must be searched behind a curtain, the clothes given to a staff member to look over, and the student must never be touched or be seen naked by school officials.

The school principal in question said the girl's clothes were searched and there had been no physical contact.

"These searches must follow a very strict protocol with specific conditions," Bolduc had said Tuesday.

"And I would add, even though it's not in the protocol, to add the human side, it must be done very respectfully."

The school board sent a letter home to parents late Wednesday telling them the search took place within established rules and added that not all the facts had been made public in the highly publicized case.

It said a search of a student is an exceedingly rare occurrence and reminded that they take place under very strict rules.

The letter also states that students always have an opportunity to communicate with a parent and if they refuse, school authorities always do.

The board reiterated its support for the high school's administration. It has said it plans to review the situation internally.

Premier Philippe Couillard said the government would first gather the facts before acting.

He vowed to take a closer look at the policy and revise them to ensure they recognize security concerns while respecting people's rights.

Also Wednesday, Quebec City police were investigating vandalism at the school, which was hit a graffiti overnight.