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Can school children be strip-searched?

Strip searches are a difficult subject, because requiring a person to take their clothes off for a bodily search is invasive and raises privacy concerns.

The issue gets even trickier when it comes to strip-searching children of school age.

While many people may believe that school children should never be strip-searched, there are cases in which it has happened in Canada, because the law allows for it in limited circumstances.

What is the law on strip searches?

The courts views strip searches as a “one of the most intrusive manners of searching,” as well as one of the most “extreme exercise of police power.” Even though the courts find it extremely intrusive, strip searches are still allowable as long as there is a valid reason for the search.

The purpose for conducting a strip search cannot just be valid but it must also be reasonable as per the Supreme Court of Canada. The court gave the example that it wouldn’t be proper to conduct a strip search of a person who was arrested for impaired driving. The exception to the search of an impaired person would be if there were reasonable suspicions that the person was carrying a gun or drugs on their person.

What about strip searches of school children?

In that case, a tricky situation becomes even trickier. Children, in general, are afforded a higher degree of protection under the law.

Though higher protection is afforded to children under the law, including the criminal law that has to be balanced with provincial/territorial education acts, some of which allow for searches, and sometimes even strip searches of students but those are usually limited to a limited set of circumstances.

Even where a provincial education act allows for strip searches of school children, it remains highly problematic.

For example, a female teenager at a high school in Quebec was taken to a room and was then asked by her female principal and another female staff member to take off her clothes. They had suspicions that the girl was carrying drugs on her person. None were found, and the province got into a lot of trouble, even though the provincial education act allows for strip searches.

The leading case on strip searches and school children is R v. M. (M.R.). A junior high school student was accused of intending to sell drugs at school. The vice principal called a police officer, who was present while he searched the student.

In that case, the court did not find the search to be unreasonable, because the provincial education statute allows for strip searches of students and the vice-principal had reasonable grounds to believe the student carried drugs on his body.

Increasingly strip searches against students is seen as violating the student’s rights and even a suspicion of a student carrying drugs may not be enough to justify a strip search. In fact, the Quebec student’s family started a lawsuit against the school and province.

If a strip search is carried out against a student that is found to be unreasonable, the party or officer who carried out the search may face assault charges. In addition, the strip search will likely be seen as violating the charter rights of the student.

If your child has been subject to a strip search you may want to consult a lawyer.

Read more:

When can the police search me?

R v. M. (M.R.)