Student search at Agassiz school was legal, says lawyer

Some parents see search as violation of their childrens’ privacy

One problem snowballed into another last week when a Kent Elementary staff member’s cell phone went missing Thursday, Nov. 29.

After retracing their steps without finding the phone, the staff member used the “Find my iPhone” app to locate their device, said Stan Watchorn, principal at Kent Elementary School. The app provides a rough location and indicated to staff that it was on school property.

Watchorn made an announcement asking the school to have a look around for the phone. When that search yielded no results, staff were asked to search students’ desks and bags.

“Just before lunch, there was concern about the phone leaving the property or being taken…I made an announcement and asked the teachers to search desks and back packs,” Watchorn said. “Shortly there after [the cell phone] was found and I made an announcement that…there was no need to continue the search.”

Watchorn would not comment on where the device was located.

Once parents heard of the incident, many took to Facebook to decry the school for what some called a violation of their childrens’ rights under the Canadian Charter – section eight specifically, which protects Canadians from unreasonable search and seizure.

Candice Ellis was one of those parents, who says her daughter – a fourth grader at Kent Elementary – felt “weird” about the search.

“While they were leaving the classroom [the teacher] was checking everyone’s pockets,” Ellis said. “I asked [the principal] to provide me with some evidence that links my daughter to this crime…which is essentially what it is. They’re accusing every student of stealing this one cell phone.”

Ellis kept her daughter home from school the following day – in response to what she called a “misuse of authority.”

“That doesn’t happen anywhere else…when you lose a cell phone. It’s like a shake down of the entire building,” she said.

But according Michael Vonn, a lawyer with BC Civil Liberties, no laws were broken.

“Teachers and school administrators can conduct locker and backpack searches if they have reasonable grounds for doing so,” Vonn said in an email to Black Press. “They are acting in loco parentis (in place of the parents) with such searches, and so aren’t subject to the same considerations that the police would be, if they were to seek access to those spaces for a search.”

In other words, if the school had brought police in to search students, there may be a case for a violation of the students’ rights.

Despite what the law says, many parents expressed their anger online. Watchorn said he received a few calls from parents wanting answers.

“One of the issues from a parent perspective – I think, was the school not notifying them that [a search] had occurred,” he said. “In hindsight, I could have sent a notice home that this had happened but that’s an oversight on my part.”

The main thing, said Watchorn, is that parents get the facts.

“I appreciate that a number of parents…gave me a call. I really appreciate that if someone has a concern that they contact me directly.”

Vonn also mentioned parent and student communication.

“We very much encourage schools to have policies in relation to such searches so that there is notice to students and parents about the limitations of their privacy in set circumstances,” he wrote. “As well, that students and parents know about the limitations of the school’s powers (for example, that they can’t conduct searches randomly or arbitrarily).”



nina.grossman@ahobserver.com

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