Four Canadian students between ages 13 and 16 were forced to lower their pants last week to allow school personnel to search them for vapes. Some Canadian charter rights experts are questioning whether violating the teenagers’ right to privacy to enforce school vaping rules is a reasonable—or legal—response to the problem.
The teenagers, all students at LaSalle Community Comprehensive High School in Montreal, Quebec, were forced to lower their pants to their knees, but did not remove their underwear. School board officials say what occurred shouldn’t be called a strip search because the students were not touched and their underwear was not removed.
But the Canadian Supreme Court, in a 2001 decision, defined a strip search as “the removal or rearrangement of some or all of the clothing of a person so as to permit a visual inspection of a person’s private areas…or undergarments.” The court also said that strip searches “represent a significant invasion of privacy and are often a humiliating, degrading and traumatic experience for individuals subject to them.”
“It felt like being a prisoner,” 9th grade student Andrew Forgione told CBC News. “That shouldn’t be happening at a school. It’s traumatizing for a victim. It isn’t normal. You’re cornered in a room, you have no phone, you can’t call your parents or anything. You feel forced.”
School staff found a vape in Forgione’s sock, and the 15-year-old received a one-day suspension. A spokesperson for the school board that runs LaSalle High School said the incident was “regrettable,” but that there was “no malicious intent” behind the search.
Queen’s University law professor Lisa Kelly told CBC News that the LaSalle search “may indeed have been unlawful,” based on Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says that people have the right “to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.” Kelly thinks the “intrusiveness of this search relative to the infraction of possibly carrying vaping products” may not be reasonable.
“If it’s just vaping stuff and if it’s not something that’s immediately dangerous I think it is going too far,” attorney Julius Grey told CTV News. “It’s one thing to look in a locker, it’s one thing to look inside a desk, it’s another thing to tell somebody to pull down his pants.”
Since 2017, when politicians, public health officials, and anti-nicotine and -drug groups began formulating a teen “vaping epidemic” around the twin targets of vaping flavors and pocketable pod vapes like JUUL, school officials in the U.S. and Canada have taken the resulting moral panic at face value and treated vaping as a major threat to health and school order.
Some schools have removed bathroom doors, or conducted random, unannounced searches for vapes. Students caught vaping or carrying vapes have been isolated, stigmatized, and punished—including with months-long suspensions.
Andrew Forgione and the other LaSalle High School students who were searched, along with other student supporters, staged a walkout on Monday to protest the actions of the school. Forgione’s mother, Laura McCarthy, joined the protestors.
“No adult has the right to tell a child to drop his pants. No one,” McCarthy told CTV News. “I’m not proud of the fact that he had a vaporizing pen on him. But I think that they should have went about it in the right way. They should have notified the parents, someone should have been there with him.”