02/24/2015 02:16 EST | Updated 04/26/2015 05:59 EDT

Court nixes prom breathalyzers as educators grapple with student safety

TORONTO - An unprecedented Canadian court ruling against the use of breathalyzers at a high school prom and the outcry sparked by the strip search of a student are a reflection of the difficult place school authorities find themselves in, educators said Tuesday.

On one hand, parents expect schools will ensure a safe environment while students, like all Canadians, have rights that limit the actions educators can take.

"Children in schools do engage in risk-type behaviour and a mandate of an administrator is to...guard the safety of all of the children," said Tina Estabrooks, president of the Canadian Association of Principals.

"It puts principals in a very awkward position."

On Monday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel ruled that requiring students to submit to breathalyzer tests as a condition of attending prom violated their constitutional rights.

The case arose after two Toronto high school students challenged their school's proposed breathalyzer edict on the basis it infringed their right to be free of an unreasonable search.

Ron Felson, principal of Northern Secondary, had said the breathalyzers were a measure of "last resort" to counter what he called a "culture of alcohol consumption and/or intoxication" at the prom dances.

He estimated about half of those attending proms over the years had been drinking, about one third were somewhat drunk, and at least two students had to be sent home from each dance because they were severely intoxicated — numbers the students challenged.

In ruling against the school, Himel found breathalyzers interfere with the bodily integrity of students and their use as a screening device a heavy-handed and disproportionate attempt to counteract a perceived drinking culture.

At the same time, the justice showed herself to be alive to the dilemma facing educators.

"The health and safety of students and maintaining school discipline is a pressing and substantial objective of the principal and school authorities," Himel said.

Last week, Quebec's education minister was forced to beat a hasty retreat after initially supporting a school's decision to strip search a 15-year-old girl on suspicion of having marijuana. Civil rights groups and parents reacted in outrage, suggesting such intrusive action could not pass constitutional muster.

Estabrooks, a principal in Saint John, N.B., said she sympathized with dilemma educators face.

"These two events that have cropped up most recently indicate there is a very grey area out there," she said.

"When we know that there is behaviours that are happening that puts a child's safety at risk and we don't respond to that, many people would hold us in a position of negligence."

Brenda Beaudette, principal of North Dundas District in Winchester, Ont., a school which opted to use a prom breathalyzer last year, said any repeat would be up to the parents council.

However, Jeff McMillan, chairman of the Upper Canada District School Board, said the one-off Winchester school decision would likely not be repeated.

"The courts have spoken and it's very clear," McMillan said.

"On the other hand, I wish there was some way we could guarantee with parents that their students and their children would be safe with us — we obviously have to find other ways."