Four students at a Montreal high school say they were forced to lower their pants, revealing their underwear, as part of a search organized by staff to see if the boys were concealing vaping products.
The students, a parent and friends of the students who were searched stood outside the school in protest on Monday morning.
"It felt like being a prisoner," said Andrew Forgione, a 15-year-old Grade 9 student at LaSalle Community Comprehensive High School.
Andrew told CBC News he was taken into a room by two staff members on Friday, and told to pull his pants down to his knees.
"That shouldn't be happening at a school. It's traumatizing for a victim. It isn't normal," he said.
"You're cornered in a room, you have no phone, you can't call your parents or anything. You feel forced."
You're cornered in a room, you have no phone, you can't call your parents or anything. You feel forced. - Andrew Forgione
Andrew says he was suspended after staff found a vape in his sock during the search.
Another student said he was asked to shake his underwear and bend over "to make sure nothing was hiding anywhere."
Andrew's mother attended the protest on Monday and said the school had not informed her of the means it took to discover the vape.
"I was notified by the vice principal at LCCHS that my son was on a day suspension, and that was it," said Laura McCarthy.
WATCH | Search at school 'traumatizing,' teen says:
McCarthy said when she got home, her son was upset and told her he'd been strip searched. McCarthy intends to file a complaint with the school.
"I was devastated," she said. "My son was violated."
The Lester B. Pearson School Board says it is investigating and in a statement said it did "not believe there was any malicious intent underlying these actions."
A spokesperson told CBC News the board took issue with the term "strip search" because the teachers had not had physical contact with the students and had not ordered them to remove their underwear.
Darren Becker said the school has some right to discretion when searching students if it has "reasonable grounds," though he did not specify for what.
The statement said that "despite this extremely regrettable incident, the school board stands firmly by its policy that students cannot bring any illicit substances (including vapes) onto school grounds."
Nicholas Pietramala, a Grade 9 student, and Ryley Vaughan, in Grade 8, say they were also searched.
"They asked me to drop my pants and shake my underwear," Nicholas said. "I turned around, had to, like, bend a bit to make sure nothing was hiding anywhere."
What kind of search can a school conduct?
Lisa Kelly, an assistant professor at Queen's University's Faculty of Law, said what happened to the LaSalle students "may indeed have been unlawful" and a violation of their charter rights.
Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms says individuals have a right "to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure."
Kelly said the "intrusiveness of this search relative to the infraction of possibly carrying vaping products" does not seem reasonable.
The Quebec Ministry of Education said it wasn't aware of the incident, but said the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1998 that under certain circumstances, school authorities may search a student.
The ministry cited that ruling, noting the search "must itself be reasonable and appropriate in light of the circumstances presented," and that its extent "will vary with the gravity of the infraction that is suspected."
An unplanned search could be conducted — the decision provides as an example — if a student is believed to be carrying a dangerous weapon, but wouldn't be justified if a student was believed to have gum despite it being prohibited by school regulations.
A 2001 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, defined strip search as "the removal or rearrangement of some or all of the clothing of a person so as to permit a visual inspection of a person's private areas … or undergarments."
The decision also said strip searches "represent a significant invasion of privacy and are often a humiliating, degrading and traumatic experience for individuals subject to them."
It also noted police "must establish reasonable and probable grounds justifying the strip search."
Carrying a vape is closer to the Supreme Court's example of carrying gum than of carrying a weapon, Kelly said.
She said, though the state accords schools a certain amount of latitude over students' privacy to maintain a safe environment, breaches of privacy of this type typically need to be justified by a sense of danger.
"A lot of these practices have significant social consequences," Kelly said, pointing to Andrew's suspension and noting that such actions can have an impact on a young person's academic trajectory and feed into an acrimonious relationship with the school that is "not in anyone's interest."
School should have gone to police, says student
Andrew, the student who was suspended after the search, said he felt uncomfortable returning to school after what happened on Friday.
"There's no way, really, to put it. You see the teacher who made you do it, it's kind of awkward, it's kind of weird for you," he said. "You're just speechless."
A friend and fellow student who attended the walkout Monday, Luca De Pasquale, said he wanted to show his support.
"My friends were violated. It's privacy. It's your body," he said. "They should have gotten the police involved if they really wanted to check."