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Vape detectors with listening abilities installed in some Peel school washrooms

At six public high schools in Peel Region, signs have been posted outside washroom doors warning students who might be considering vaping that they’re being monitored with new detectors that can alert the front office.

Those detectors, however, also play a secondary role: monitoring the washrooms for loud noises, giving principals real-time information that a student might need help.

The audio detection devices have raised alarm bells about student privacy inside washrooms, traditionally private spaces, and whether detectors such as these could be rolled out to other schools across the province.

The Peel District School Board said vaping detectors were installed in student bathrooms at six high schools “over the past several months” to tackle the growing rise of vaping inside washrooms.

“What students have been telling me is that a group of students — maybe three or four at a time — would go into a bathroom, and they would go in and they would crowd in… to do this,” Peel District School Board Chair David Green told Global News, explaining vaping issues in schools.

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Board sources told Global News the issue has, in some schools, led to vapers crowding out other students who need to use the washroom, becoming a top priority for parents and staff.

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While students in Brampton, Caledon and Mississauga have been learning about the dangers of vaping through classroom presentations and code-of-conduct-focused assemblies, the board also opted to install vape detection devices in the male and female washrooms with signs clearly pointed outside.

“This washroom is being monitored with noise/vape detectors,” a sign inside one of the six high schools read.

In February, one the high schools that was outfitted with the devices sent a letter to parents in an effort to alleviate their concerns about the noise-capturing component of the vape detection devices.

“As a safety measure, these vaping detectors also have a loud noise detection function,” the letter from the principal read. “Please note that this noise detection does not record conversations in any way. It’s a function that captures and notifies administration of loud noises and sounds.”

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In some schools, staff have been told that the alerts would go to school administrators and hall monitors who would then be responsible for responding to washroom-related incidents.

In a statement to Global News, the Peel District School Board also stressed that bathroom conversations are not being recorded but that loud sounds “could mean that students are in need of assistance.”

“In the coming months, our school board, the school administrations with the pilot project vaping detectors, and the vendor will assess together the effectiveness of the vaping detectors,” it said.

While the school board didn’t reveal the name of the vendor, some brands offer other security measures that go beyond the detection of vapour from nicotine pens.

The Halo Smart Sensor brand, which is targeted to high schools and universities, offers gunshot noise detection and can capture specific keywords that would send school administrators a notification of a bullying incident or fight.

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Staff at one high school were told the detectors installed in student facilities included listening capabilities for certain keywords in addition to loud disturbances.

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“The problem with these kinds of technologies is they start at this place and then they expand — often dramatically — over time,” Ann Cavoukian, former Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, told Global News.

“That could also expand to eventually picking up conversations kids are having in restrooms. And that, I think, would be a true violation of privacy.”

On Sunday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the province wanted to scale up the number of vape detection devices across Ontario schools, setting aside $30 million over three years in a “physical security infrastructure” fund.

The province said school boards would have the flexibility to decide what security measures are required including: security cameras; motion sensors; safety lighting; and vape detectors.

While the ministry does not have a centralized list of preferred detection devices, the government said school boards must comply with various provincial laws including the Ontario Human Rights Code and privacy legislation.

It will be for local school boards to consult with their legal teams to make sure the policies and vape detectors they introduce do not violate any of those rules.

&© 2024 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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