Northern Secondary School pulls the plug on prom breathalyzer


Published:

Jonathan Lisus (http://www.counsel-toronto.com)

Toronto high school students seem to have learned a valuable lesson about what wheels get the grease.

Following an early May decision by Northern Secondary School principal Ron Felsen to implement a breathalyzer policy for the school’s May 29 prom, students, led by student council president Brett Gorski, sought assistance arguing the decision with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and eventually Toronto lawyer Jonathan Lisus. It has proven a successful tactic for the time being, although the issue is still headed to court in the fall.

Lisus served the Toronto District School Board and the principal with papers during the week of May 20, seeking to have the policy overturned at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

On May 23, Lisus confirmed Felsen had decided to relent on the policy, at least temporarily, due to a lack of time to formulate a proper defence for the courts. Lisus said the issue is still headed to the courts in September, but parties have agreed there will be no such testing this year at Northern.

Principal Felsen introduced the policy following a supportive parent council meeting in late April, but afterwards it became the subject of opposition from students, some concerned parents, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and eventually Lisus.

Felsen said he had researched other Toronto high schools with similar policies, such as Malvern Collegiate Institute, and decided to implement it at his school.

“We treat your children’s safety as seriously as you do, and we can continue to hold high school formals only as long as our students comply with our requirements regarding drugs and alcohol,” he wrote to parents when announcing his decision.

“Despite our proactive efforts in the past to prevent students from consuming alcohol prior to the prom … alcohol has continued to be a problem at the last number of school dances and school formals.”

He has since explained that, in order to ensure student safety, it was the best choice for his school. The policy was to demand that all participants in Northern’s prom must pass a breathalyzer test before gaining entry. 

“We’re in the field of eduction, so I have a responsibility. It’s going to be a great evening, and they [students] will learn it’s possible to have a great prom to remember for all the right reasons and without alcohol,” Felsen said.

Toronto District School Board spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board and trustees leave such decisions up to the principals and staff at any given school and do not currently have any policy in place regarding breathalyzers. He added that currently the board is not entertaining creating one. 

“Because schools are different, it’s whatever works best for the school. We leave that up to them,” he said, adding that, although he does not know which schools within the TDSB have similar policies, of about 100 schools, “only a handful have them [breathalyzer policies].”

At Lawrence Park Collegiate, principal Lillian Jovanovic said they do not have any such policy in place but added, “We’re talking about it, not for this year, but maybe for the future.”

North Toronto Collegiate principal Joel Gorenkoff said his school also does not have the policy, and York Mills Collegiate vice-principal Mira Wong confirmed her school does not.

Earl Haig Secondary School did not return calls.

In addition, Forest Hill Collegiate, where famed civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby graduated, does not have the policy.

Ruby said arguing to hold a blanket breathalyzer test for a school’s students would be difficult to defend at court. 

“A public high school is government; government is ruled by the Charter [of Rights]; the Charter protects privacy, and unreasonable infringements of privacy are prohibited,” he explained.

“I would think this [policy] is unconstitutional.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association had contacted the school, at the behest of the students, via a letter requesting that Felsen reconsider the policy, also citing it as “unconstitutional.”

“We fully recognize that schools have an obligation to provide a safe and secure learning environment and have no hesitation supporting that goal. School officials also, however, have an obligation to abide by the limits set out in the Education Act and to respect Charter rights of their students, including the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure,” association general counsel Sukanya Pillay and program director Abby Deshman wrote to Felsen, who still declined to alter the policy after receiving the letter in mid-May.

Northern high’s student council president Gorski, 18, and her peers were hopeful that the policy would be overturned.

She is named as one of the plaintiffs that Lisus will represent when the issue reaches the Superior Court bench in the fall.

He filed against the school board and Felsen in an attempt to halt the testing and said that, if he was successful, it could mean setting a precedent for other Ontario schools seeking to implement a similar policy.

In his application to the court, Lisus called the policy “warrantless, and [it] is a presumptively unreasonable search.”

“The respondents [the TDSB and school officials] lack reasonable grounds to believe the applicants [the students], or any other prom attendee, will violate any school rule at the prom,” Lisus wrote in his application to court. 

In her affidavit to the court, Gorski said her experience with Northern has been “very positive; in many ways, it has defined my experience as a teenager.”

In the affidavit, Gorski said she and her fellow students “deserve the opportunity to attend our prom — the symbolic end to our years as high school students and our transition into adulthood — without being forced to stand in line waiting for our turn to blow into a breathalyze.” 

“Our own principal’s fears should not cause prom attendees to be treated as guilty until proven innocent by Mr. Felsen and the staff of Northern,” she said.

Gorski said almost all of the students were opposed to the blanket testing, although it didn’t seem to affect ticket sales to the event, held at the Eglinton Grand. 

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