Recently, the principal of a large high school in Toronto announced, with the approval of the parent council, that all students attending this year's prom would be subject to a breathalyzer test.
Those of us who fear for our teenagers' safety might think, at first blush, that this is a great idea. After all, if someone is going to ensure that our underage children don't drink, we are all safer, right? But then some of us would be quite happy to clap them in irons if we thought this measure could improve safety. Fortunately, that would be illegal. And, according to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, so is this mandatory breathalyzer test.
The issue with safety is that no one is opposed to it. Nor should they be. After all, imagine a principal who suggests there is too much safety for our children -- a real non-starter. However, the belief that we set everything else aside when safety is our concern, means that we could find ourselves subject to the most egregious measures, so long as we believe that the intention of such measures is safety.
There is a reason that Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure -- but it is not always easy to understand. Too many people think that a search is reasonable if the authorities end up finding what they are looking for. On this basis, it would be reasonable to search every person, every home, and every building on a daily basis, because such a pervasive search is bound to come up with SOMETHING that is illicit or dangerous.
So why don't we search everyone? First of all, it would be impossible to have enough human power to execute that number of searches. But more importantly, it would be a gross invasion of the privacy and the dignity of vast numbers of people. Even if you have nothing in your possession that could be called dangerous or illicit, you likely have things you consider to be private. And what is more private than your body?
If police want a sample of a bodily fluid or of the air you exhale they generally need a very particular reason to suspect YOU of wrongdoing. Not anyone standing near you, or related to you, but YOU alone. There are no warrants issued for mass searches based on a general likelihood that people of a certain age, dressed in a certain fashion or attending a certain event will have things that are illicit or dangerous. Yes, you may be asked to open your bag when you go to a club or a game, but that is not a search by a government authority. It is a voluntary search performed as a condition of entry by a private entity. Don't want to be searched? Don't go.
Schools principals and their designates are government authorities. The searches they perform are regulated by constitutional law, even at a prom. Principals are as subject to the Charter as police or other government authorities. This means that they may not perform unreasonable searches.
A school prom is not just another party. It is a special rite of passage, like a graduation ceremony. What students wear, who they go with, what music they will dance to are all planned even years in advance. So telling students that if they don't want to be searched, they can just stay home is deeply unfair.
If impaired or violent students show up and want to ruin this special event, they should be sent away. You don't need a breathalyzer to do this. Breathalyzers won't work anyway. Alcohol is not the only substance impairing students these days and the other substances will not show up on a breathalyzer test. We don't want students impaired by drugs at the prom either. Nothing substitutes for old-fashioned human interaction.
So principals, please DO keep the prom safe! But not at the expense of infringing the rights and freedoms of the very people you are trying to protect.