'It doesn't feel good': Teen tells story of friend's dress code protest arrest

·4 min read
Students protest outside École secondaire catholique Béatrice-Desloges in Orléans on Friday, May 13, 2022. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Students protest outside École secondaire catholique Béatrice-Desloges in Orléans on Friday, May 13, 2022. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

A teen threatened with arrest at last week's protest against a dress code blitz at an Ottawa high school says police could have handled the situation better.

"I feel like they could have easily handled it a lot better by calmly walking up to us and calmly just informing us that if we don't leave, these are the consequences," said 18-year-old Owen Harrington, sitting in a park down the street from École secondaire catholique Béatrice-Desloges.

Ottawa's French Catholic school board apologized to students after hundreds protested what they called demeaning enforcement of a dress code.

The board said a preliminary investigation found some students, mostly girls, were called into the hallways and asked to bend their leg backwards at the knee to determine if their shorts complied with the dress code.

Several students told CBC they saw staff asking other students to bend over in order to measure the length of their shorts and dresses. The board said it hasn't found evidence of this.

Harrington, who doesn't attend the Orléans high school, said he went to the demonstration with his mother's blessing, wanting to support friends and other students by wearing short shorts.

Told he was trying to start riot

Harrington and his friends initially joined other demonstrators on school grounds. But after officers threatened to arrest him for trespassing, Harrington said he crossed the street to be where he thought he'd be fine to continue protesting.

That's when police approached him again.

"[The officer] walked up to me and he's like, 'I'm going to put you under arrest for trying to start a riot.'" he said.

"I tried to ask him, like, 'How am I trying to start a riot? Like I'm just peacefully standing here yelling like everyone else.'"

He said police put hands on him, but another officer intervened and pulled the officers aside, trying to de-escalate the situation.

Around the same time, an officer moved in on his friend.

Video of the confrontation shows one of Harrington's friends shoved against a police cruiser. He was taken away and later released without charges or tickets.

After that, Harrington re-entered school property to get his car and keys, was threatened with arrest again, but left without further incident.

WATCH | Video of Friday's protest: 

In a previous interview, Ottawa's interim police chief Steve Bell said actions taken by police were meant to maintain public safety, particularly around the road.

"What you did see is when we intervened, there were certain people — not associated with the school — that were attempting to agitate the crowds," he told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"We were concerned about their safety and entering the roadway, as well as encouraging other people to enter the roadway."

When asked about whether Harrington's friend was really on the street — with online video showing him standing on the sidewalk before police grab him — Bell said the video doesn't show the whole picture.

Police had already intervened several times and the young men weren't following those directions, he said.

But Harrington disagrees with that assessment.

Feels focus should be on dress code blitz

"I would just say that I was being supportive and trying to get our voices heard," he said. "And just hyping the crowd up, but like, I wasn't agitating them."

He said other protesters did enter the road, seeing Harrington had been told to leave the premises and wanting to join him. Even before police arrived, teachers were having difficulties keeping all the students off the road due to the size of the crowd, he added.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

While he wants his story told, the young man wants the focus to remain on how the school acted and the effect of the dress code blitz on female students.

He said the police presence largely set the tone of Friday's protest and his friends felt immediately targeted by police. He feels like more female officers and a softer approach could have led to a better outcome.

Even days later, Harrington said watching his friend be put in the back of a police cruiser for protesting on the sidewalk was frightening.

"It doesn't feel good. I don't know. It's really hard to explain."