Last week, a teenage girl who was suspected of harboring drugs while in her Quebec school was taken by her female principal and vice-principal to a room where she was ordered to remove ALL of her clothing, including her underwear. She was not permitted to call her mother. No drugs were found.
According to the principal and the school board, this strip-search was lawful and compliant with school board policies. While I am not a lawyer, I am a pretty big fan of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking and reading about cases where young people's rights are involved. And I am continually struck by the notion entertained by certain people, including rather a lot of school administrators, that young people are not rights-holders.
Can we straighten this one out please? If a person is alive, he or she is a rights holder. Rights holders don't have to be citizens, they don't need to be any particular age, nor do they have to be free of an obligation to be an inmate of certain institutions.
In other words, students in schools, just like prisoners, retain their rights, even where certain rights may need to be temporarily limited for specific purposes. This is why courts have decided that prisoners retain the right to vote in federal elections, and students in school have the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. We cannot subject prisoners to cruel or unusual treatment, nor can we disregard the dignity of a young person, even if we believe that she may have done something that is against a rule or a law.
Let me explain further: Even where an administrator believes that he or she is behaving in a lawful manner, that administrator does not relinquish the obligation to behave in a way that respects a person's rights. Even if the strip search of a 15-year-old girl in the absence of her parent or guardian were determined to be according to policy, why on earth would someone choose to do it? There are many things that are, as the former General Counsel of The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, A. Alan Borovoy has said, "lawful but awful."
If anyone thinks that forcing a teenager to remove every bit of her clothing in front of two adults who are in a position of power constitutes treatment with dignity, on the grounds that no one touched her body, they need to get a grip. Or they need to be treated in a similar fashion and asked how much dignity is left to them at the end of the event.
What if the principal believed the girl was harbouring drugs? Could she think of no other way to deal with such a situation than to strip the girl of her dignity and her clothing? The kindest thing one can say is that this represents a significant failure of imagination. Did the principal believe that the school was in imminent peril? If she did, I would very much like to learn how she came to such a conclusion. If she didn't believe the school or its students were in clear and present danger, why in the world would she have decided to take such immediate and extreme action?
But most importantly, I would like to find out what the principal believes was learned by the student - and by all of the other students in her school. A school IS a place of learning, after all. And we know that we all learn a great deal from real-life experiences. So in a school that teaches an anti-bullying curriculum, that hopes to have students who grow into the kind of citizens who respect rights and take responsibility for their actions, a lesson was certainly learned.
Is the lesson taught here about school authorities, who are charged with protecting the young and the vulnerable, being free to abuse their power? For the sake of citizens everywhere, let's hope not.
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