Student rights and responsibilities during searches

Region: Ontario Answer # 1412

In schools, students may be searched if they are suspected of violating classroom rules or crimes, such as possessing drugs and/or weapons. Routine searches may include searching desks. Other more serious searches include locker inspections or searching a student’s belongings.

In Canada, a student’s rights and responsibilities during searches are dealt with under two pieces of legislation, the federal Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the provincial Education Act.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Under section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure. This provision aims to protect an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. A ‘reasonable’ search must be justified by circumstances that would deem a violation of an individual’s expectation of privacy as necessary.

This also applies in a school context. The Supreme Court has recognized the privacy of students in relation to their belongings.  The same protections that would apply to an individual’s home would apply in school. However, the Supreme Court clarifies that police will be held to a stricter standard in justifying a reasonable search compared to school authorities who conduct searches.

The Education Act

Under the Education Act, school boards and principals have the responsibility to inspect and protect school board property. This includes overseeing maintenance of the property and ensuring that it is used in accordance to set policies.

The Education Act also sets out a principal’s responsibility to ensure health and safety at schools. The Act allows principals and school boards to ensure that school property is not used to conduct illegal activity or violate any alcohol or drug-related policies.

When can a student’s locker or desk be searched?

Principals or vice-principals have the authority to inspect locker contents and desks if it is deemed necessary. For example, a locker will be searched by the principal or vice-principal if there is a reasonable suspicion that it may contain drugs or weapons.

School lockers are typically the school board’s property and are provided for student use by the school’s authority. The school should inform students of policies related to the search of lockers, removal of locks and their expectation of privacy in regard to their locker use.

It is important to note that the right to search a locker would not justify searching a student’s property inside the locker (e.g. searching within a student’s bag etc.). However, several Canadian cases show that under the right to maintain order and discipline, educators may search a student and their belongings, if they have reason to suspect that rules or laws are being violated.

The search power should be exercised with restraint and boards are advised to set a locker search policy to be distributed to students and parents.

Refer to your local School Board or the Ontario Ministry of Education for more information.


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