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OpEd: School decision to ask aboriginal student to stop smudging passes sniff test

Religious or cultural practices should be accommodated if possible, but not if they infringe on rights of other students to have an effective learning environment.
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Gord Woodward, February 7, 2014 3:26:15 PM

There’s no argument that teenage boys smell bad. Whether it’s from hormone-fuelled body odor or from marinating in cologne that even pig farmers find offensive, our progeny can offend nostrils from 30 paces away. Even if they’re down wind.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, a teen by any other name would still smell like feet.

It’s an issue for we parents who share a home with these walking stink bombs. But it’s also a major concern for schools because strong scents can be disruptive to a learning environment (not to mention hazardous to teachers’ olfactory senses).

Related: First Nations student told to remove ‘Got land?’ sweatshirt by Sask. school

That’s why a Manitoba high school made the right call when it asked one of its aboriginal students to refrain from smudging, a tradition of burning sacred medicines to cleanse negative feelings. The 17-year-old had lost a younger brother to suicide last year and said the rite, which he practiced in the mornings before school, helped him cope with his grief.

The problem is that smudging, which is also used in feng shui, can leave a very powerful smell on the body and clothes of the person doing it. So when the teen had smudged, everyone in his vicinity at school was aware of it. A teacher even accused him of smoking weed, since the smell of burned sage apparently resembles pot’s distinct scent. (Which gives our glassy-eyed teens another excuse when we catch them reeking of skunk cabbage: “But, Mom, it’s just sage!”)

The school wasn’t over-riding his right to practice his religious, spiritual or cultural beliefs. It was protecting the right of all students to study in an environment free from overpowering scents, which have been linked to allergens and difficulty concentrating (something hormonal boys already struggle with if there’s a female within 10 kilometres).

Related: Student ‘too shy’ to attend all-female class alleges discrimination

And that trumps all in our non-secular education system.
Religious practice belongs in the pews or longhouses, not in the public classroom.

Accommodations can and should be made, of course, such as excusing Muslim students so that they may go elsewhere to pray or allowing Jewish students to skip the Christmas concert. But those accommodations should not cause hardship for other students.

In this case, administrators were ready to issue a suspension but showed sensitivity by meeting with aboriginal leaders to try to find a way to meet the needs of the grieving teen and his peers, not one or the other. Whatever they worked out has left the boy happy. He says he’s resumed smudging.

Let’s hope that means the school can now resume its usual operations and get back to the important educational challenges it faces.

Such as teaching teenage boys about hygiene. Because whether it’s B.O. or those noxious body sprays, it’s our noses that pay the price.

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