POLITICS

Quebec policy allowing strip searches of high school students sparks outrage

02/18/2015 03:40 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Parents and civil-rights activists alike reacted with outrage Wednesday at word that Quebec school officials had strip-searched a teenaged girl suspected of having marijuana — with the blessing of provincial government policy.

In a day and age where educators can lose their jobs for laying a hand on a student, the province's Education Minister Yves Bolduc defended the searches as a reasonable safety measure in which teachers need not consult parents but aren't allowed to touch the students.

A 15-year-old girl told the Journal de Quebec last week she felt violated after being strip-searched at Neufchatel High School.

Abby Deshman, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, called the practice "really disturbing" and likely a violation of the Constitution.

"Both the actions of the school officials as they've been reported in the media as well as their interpretation of their legal authority is concerning," Deshman said.

"Strip searches are such a highly invasive form of search, and there are extremely tight controls on police and correctional officials."

Becky Lozowsky, a mother of three younger children in Owen Sound, Ont., compared the practice to forcible confinement or sexual assault of a minor.

"There is nothing right about this," Lozowsky said. "That school and everyone involved would burn if this was anyone of my kids."

On Tuesday, Bolduc told the province's legislature that strip searches are fine, as long as they are done "respectfully" and subject to restrictions.

The Quebec search policy, in place since 2010, mandates the presence of two teachers — preferably of the same sex during the search. The student, from behind a curtain, is expected to strip and hand the discarded clothing — including underwear — to the teachers for examination, officials said.

The policy cites the legal authority of the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in 1998 that school officials have the right to search students' lockers or bags.

However, Deshman called the comparison facile, saying it completely misses the mark given the level of violation of privacy and personal dignity involved with a strip search.

"It's a coercive search power being used by a public authority," she said.

"To make a student remove all of her clothes, it just doesn't seem to be a rational or a logical step."

Neither the Canadian Association of Principals nor the Canadian School Boards Association responded to multiple attempts for comment.

Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals said the law in her province prohibits the practice.

"Ontario schools do not have school staff conduct strip searches. Never. In any school," Sandals said. "When it gets around to searching for drugs, you call police."

Faced with a backlash, Bolduc said on Wednesday he was pondering tighter rules and had ordered an investigation into two recent incidents.

"We will judge on the facts of what needs to be done in the future," Bolduc told the legislature.