Parents of students attending Boissevain School are questioning the legitimacy of a recent school policy, which involves bolting open select bathroom and change room doors to cut down on vaping and other unwanted behaviour.
Leanne Wiebe is perturbed about the bathroom door policy, especially since Boissevain School administration did not immediately inform her and other parents about the change when it first happened over a year ago, forcing many of them to find out through their children.
"I was very upset about it," Wiebe said on Feb. 10. "There was no contact to the parents that this might be happening. There was no warning to the students that this might be happening. It just happened one day, and to me this is a complete violation of a student’s right to privacy in the school."
"Emily," a mother of two who asked that her name be changed to maintain her anonymity, said this policy is especially hard on her pre-teen daughter, whose desire for privacy is very important at this point in her life.
"I remember being a young girl and hated changing in front of my friends, never mind knowing that I can’t close the door," she said on Feb. 3. "The last thing you need when you’re trying to open a tampon or a pad, when you’re already mortified that you have your period, is being unable to close the main door."
Because of the ensuing backlash from parents, the Boissevain School administration composed a special version of its newsletter, titled "The Bathroom Crisis Edition," to address the issue directly.
Within this document — which was sent out to parents on Feb. 25, 2020 and recently obtained by the Sun — a school official explains that several of the school’s washrooms have had their doors latched open for years, "so it never seemed that it would be the kind of an issue that we would need to pre-communicate."
The official goes on to write that this decision was made to cut down on the increased instances of vaping and vandalism within these spaces, with bullying also being a growing worry.
In response to the concerns about privacy, the document goes on to explain that all the bathrooms or change rooms that were impacted either have a pre-existing "walk-around" wall or an opaque curtain that was hung after this new policy went into effect.
However, Wiebe told the Sun that she has seen these "shower curtains" in person and said they don’t alleviate her anxiety surrounding this set-up.
"Those shower curtains weren’t staying up and … it was not an acceptable solution to the issue," she said.
Of course, shortly after this newsletter was sent out, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Manitoba schools to close their doors in March 2020, which put this whole controversy on the back burner temporarily.
But when students returned to in-person classes this past fall, Emily revealed that this policy was still in place, with the administration digging in its heels even further by allegedly saying that keeping bathroom doors open is now a major health issue.
"It just kind of pisses me off that you’re going to use something like COVID to your advantage to make this choice," she said.
Throughout this whole process, both parents said that the Boissevain School principal, Stephanie Emberly, has not been receptive to their complaints or the concerns of students.
In fact, Emily revealed that she reached out to the Sun in the first place because she hasn’t gotten anywhere talking to members of the school administration.
While Emberly wouldn’t provide an official comment on these matters, she directed the Sun to chat with Turtle Mountain School Division Supt. Tim De Ruyck, who maintains that "that there is no breach of privacy in any circumstance" when it comes to this issue.
De Ruyck went on to say that the policy of bolting open select bathroom doors to deter bad behaviour is a "fairly common practice" in other school divisions, and that the TMSD is simply following suit.
In Boissevain School’s newsletter to parents in February last year, the notice claims that their sister K-12 school in Killarney had already removed select bathroom doors as well.
Similar cases have also popped up in the news across North America these past few years, with St. Joseph High School in Ottawa removing their bathroom doors in January 2019 to curb student vaping.
South of the border, schools in both Maryland (Broadneck High School) and Alabama (Wilson High School) instituted similar measures around that same time, sparking concern from parents and students in the process.
As for Boissevain School, Emberly indicates that she is going to keep this bathroom door policy in place for the time being, claiming that it has been effective in deterring student vaping.
However, Wiebe still thinks this is the wrong approach and believes that there are alternate solutions to this vaping problem — like installing speciality smoke detectors — that doesn’t punish students en masse.
"For those few kids who were vaping in the bathrooms, you have sacrificed privacy to every other student then," she said. "To me, that’s not fair."
The Sun also reached out to the Boissevain School Parent Advisory Council for comment, but didn’t not receive a reply by press time.
» Twitter: @KyleDarbyson