Question: There has been considerable controversy about a recent Quebec incident in which a principal and teacher strip searched a student suspected of selling drugs in the school. What are the rules governing searches of students in school?
Answer: Generally, Canadian courts have sought to balance the rights of individual students and the duty of principals and teachers to maintain order, discipline and safety in school. In practice, defining this balance can be complex, and teachers need to proceed with care and caution.
This issue was addressed in a Supreme Court ruling in 1998 (R. v. M. (M.R.)). In its decision, the court held that it is acceptable to compel a student to attend the office (or some other location in the school) for the administration of discipline. School officials can also question students on matters relating strictly to school discipline.
However, if this issue goes beyond school discipline, it’s then beyond the scope of duties of the school official, and the proper authorities — like the police — should be involved. At this point, the student has a right to representation that the school official must respect and facilitate.
School officials do have the authority to search students, but such searches must be reasonable and minimally intrusive (in the case that went to the Supreme Court, the student suspected of having drugs was directed to roll down his socks).
Furthermore, the search must be for the primary purpose of upholding school rules and must be conducted in the reasonable expectation that it will uncover items that are relevant in this context. Similar restrictions govern searches of student lockers and possessions. I can’t imagine any circumstance when it would be justifiable to have students fully undress or be in their underclothing for a search initiated by a teacher or principal.
School officials don’t need to meet the same “reasonable grounds” standard that the police must meet before conducting a search, nor do school officials need a warrant in advance of a search. In a school setting, a search may be justified on the basis of information provided by a credible student, more than one student or obtained through a teacher or principal’s own observations, or by any combination of information and observations that leads a school official to conclude that there’s a credible basis for the search.
It is important to note that in no event should teachers or principals play the role of police or act as their agent. If the police initiate the investigation, involving a school official does not lower the police’s legal obligations to the person being investigated.
Additionally, in these circumstances, the teacher’s role changes significantly. When the police are called, under the legal standard of “parens patriae,” the principal’s obligation to protect a vulnerable person shifts the focus to now protecting the student’s interests to ensure that the student’s rights are not being infringed upon. At the very least, this would require calling the student’s parents or guardians prior to any police interview being conducted.
Of course, teachers must exercise good judgment in all matters. They are bound at all times by the Code of Professional Conduct to treat pupils “… with dignity and respect and [be] considerate of their circumstances.” As well, as employees of a board, they are required to know and abide by any relevant board policy. ❚
Questions for consideration in this column are welcome. Please address them to Gordon Thomas at Barnett House (email@example.com).