Thursday, March 28, 2002
Teen will fight zero-tolerance insanity
Family wants school board to apologize after boy suspended, without evidence for drugsMelanie Brooks and Jennifer Campbell
The Ottawa Citizen
A 15-year-old boy suspended from school because a police dog smelled marijuana on his jacket has retained Lawrence Greenspon, one of Ottawa's top criminal lawyers, saying he won't let the school board trample his rights.
Chris Laurin -- who had no drugs in his possession -- wants the Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board to apologize and erase his suspension, or face a lawsuit.
"Chris chose to become an advocate for youth," said the boy's father, Michel Laurin. "We're looking at litigation to change rights for teens. Chris is being humiliated in front of his peers, and he didn't do anything wrong. I'm very proud about how Chris is handling this."
Just after Chris arrived at St. Matthew high school in Orléans Tuesday morning, the school principal announced there would be a "lockdown," a situation where police officers, at the request of the school, would search the premises for weapons or drugs. Minutes later, Chris's Grade 10 class was told to wait outside while a police officer and drug-sniffing dog went through the classroom. They came out holding Chris's ski jacket.
Chris was taken to the principal's office, where the vice-principal questioned him and searched his jacket, his bag and his locker. Even though they didn't find any drugs -- and the vice-principal admitted she couldn't smell marijuana on the jacket -- Chris was suspended, and sent home.
He was initially told he would be suspended for three days -- the minimum for such an "offence" -- but vice-principal Dan Kennedy later called Mr. Laurin and said Chris was suspended for two days and will have to see a drug counsellor when he returns to school.
When Mr. Laurin first heard about the suspension Tuesday, he talked to Chris about it, and gave him a choice: they could accept the decision, or they could fight it, and bring attention to the way teens are treated in schools.
"I feel very good about bringing out this issue," Chris said last night. "It's not fair. I didn't do anything wrong, so why was I suspended? I don't understand how they can do this to a student who didn't do anything wrong."
After calling the Human Rights Commission and being told Chris's rights had likely been violated, Mr. Laurin decided to pursue the matter legally. He called Mr. Greenspon last night and the lawyer agreed to take on the case.
"This is zero-tolerance gone insane," Mr. Greenspon said in an interview with the Citizen earlier in the day. "I read this article and as I was reading, I was thinking 'I don't believe this, this is not happening.' "
Mr. Greenspon is to meet with Chris and Mr. Laurin today, on what will be Chris's first day of school after being suspended Tuesday.
Mr. Laurin wants the school board to apologize for suspending Chris "without reason" and to erase the suspension from his record. He also wants the board to re-examine the lockdown policy that he says strips students of their rights. If the board refuses, Mr. Laurin said he will seek remuneration for the damage done to his son.
"I look at him, and I wonder, what kind of an example is this setting for him? What is this teaching him?" said Mr. Laurin, who has another son, Andrew, 12. "I look at Chris, and just hope this will make his character stronger, and he'll learn from this to stand up for what's right. You have to stand up for your civil liberties."
Parents -- not the student -- have the right to appeal a suspension, but the appeal usually takes longer than the suspension itself.
Michael Baine, the superintendent of student services for the school board, couldn't comment on Chris's case specifically because of student privacy concerns, but said suspensions aren't given lightly.
"There are policies in place we have to follow," he said. "The province's Safe Schools Act, which went into effect this year, required all boards to establish a stricter policy. It has some pretty tight restrictions. The principal considers this, and determines an appropriate punishment.
"We have to remember, this policy is for the safety of the students. Nobody wants drug-sniffing dogs in schools, but we don't want drugs on school grounds."
Mr. Greenspon called that policy "nothing short of ridiculous.
"Are they seriously saying there's a school policy that says if a dog sniffs a coat, and barks a certain way, and they find no drugs, they have to suspend the student anyway?"
Besides the fact that the boy was punished even though there was no evidence of a breach of school policy or a law, he said using drug-sniffing dogs cannot and would not be done in public places such as libraries or shopping malls.
But the expectation of privacy in schools is different, said Robert Solomon, a professor of law at the University of Western Ontario.
"Canadian courts have been willing to give educators considerable discretion when it comes to drugs in schools," he said.
Eugene Oscapella, an Ottawa lawyer and founder of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, said he doesn't like the message this case sends to teenagers.
"Will they grow up thinking that people who have authority over them can run roughshod over their rights?" he asked. "Our job in a democracy is not to make the police's job easy. And last time I checked we still had some democracy in this country."
© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen