Ministerial Statement by Acting Minister for Education (Schools) on Schools' Procedures for Students Under Police Investigation on Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Published Date: 01 March 2016 12:00 AM

News Parliamentary Replies

1. Mdm Speaker, thank you for allowing me to make this statement.

2. On 26 January, I was deeply saddened when I was informed that Benjamin Lim, a student from North View Secondary School had passed away. This passing of a young life is a tragic affair. We cannot even begin to imagine what a difficult and painful time this must be for Benjamin’s family, friends and schoolmates. We extend to them our deepest and sincerest condolences.

Public Interest

3. In the wake of Benjamin’s death, there were questions and concerns raised about whether the school had done enough to look after Benjamin’s interests, and whether the school should have allowed the Police to take Benjamin away without his parents’ consent or an accompanying adult.

4. Such public concerns and good intentions are fully understandable. However, I have chosen not to publicly respond earlier for the same reasons as the Minister for Home Affairs and Law.

5. I will do so now as the role played by our schools in Police investigations has become a matter of public interest.

6. Mdm Speaker, each year, on average, our secondary schools deal with 1,350 arrest cases involving students. Such arrests involve theft, mischief by fire, wilful trespass, sexual offences, rioting, and in some cases, endangerment to life.

7. Some of these are serious crimes. Our schools have been working closely with the Police so that such behaviour can be curbed effectively, and ensure that these students are able to be guided back onto the right track through early education, intervention and reform.

Considerations by Our Schools

8. When a suspect happens to be a student, our schools have dual responsibilities towards the student, and also to cooperate with the Police in the interest of public safety and security.

9. Schools will always treat the interests and well-being of their students as a key priority. Some members of the public have suggested that the schools’ duty of care extends to shielding students from the Police, and not releasing them to the Police without their parents’ consent.

10. This sounds plausible, but it is not so straightforward. The Police carry out an important public function to uphold the law and keep Singapore safe and secure.

11. It is reasonable, and indeed expected that our schools cooperate with Police investigations.

12. In discharging their functions, the Police will decide if the interview with a student suspected of committing a crime or offence should be conducted in the school, or at the Police Station. The prerogative lies with the Police, not with the Principal or the school staff.

13. Our schools provide a safe, nurturing and conducive environment for learning. Our schools will always take appropriate steps to look after their students’ interests and well-being, but they cannot do so in a manner that will obstruct the Police in their investigations.

14. The following steps are carefully taken and consciously carried out when a student is asked to assist the Police in their investigations:

  • First, the teachers or staff will be discreet when bringing the student to meet with the Police. They will ensure that no undue attention is drawn to the student.
  • Second, the school leaders will first ascertain the student’s physical and emotional well-being before letting the Police speak to the student. The school leaders will also request that the number of police officers speaking to the student be kept to a minimum.
  • Third, to afford greater assurance to the student, the school leaders or staff will request to be present if an initial interview is to be conducted at the school.
  • Fourth, should the Police decide to bring the student to the Police Station for further questioning, the school will request that the Police first contact one of the student’s parents to inform them of the situation and where the student will be brought to. The school will also ensure that the student has something to eat or is not hungry.
  • Fifth, the school will request that the student not be handcuffed and be escorted to the police vehicle discreetly, with minimal exposure to other students and school staff. However, the Police retain final discretion to use handcuffs depending on the circumstances of each case.
  • Sixth, after the student is released by the Police, school staff will keep in touch with the parents of the student to render support and work out any follow-up steps to look after the well-being of the student.
  • Seventh, when the student returns to school, the school will closely monitor the well-being of the student.
  • Lastly, the school will protect the confidentiality of the student’s identity and the on-going police investigations.

15. These eight steps are not new to our schools. In Benjamin’s case, the school worked with the Police to ensure that the relevant steps were taken.

  • In particular, when the Police first arrived and requested to speak with the student, the Principal sent a member of his staff to the canteen to look for Benjamin. This was done discreetly and Benjamin was quietly brought to the Principal’s office.
  • The Principal spoke with Benjamin and informed him that a Police officer would be speaking with him. The Principal also assured Benjamin that he and his staff would stay with Benjamin throughout the meeting.
  • Thereafter, one Police officer entered the room to speak to Benjamin.
  • At the end of the meeting, when Benjamin was required to go to the Police Station, the Principal told Benjamin to call his mother. The Principal also ensured that Benjamin’s mother knew where Benjamin would be taken to.
  • The Principal also gave instructions to the school counsellor to give Benjamin’s mother a call on the same day to check on Benjamin’s well-being.

16. At this juncture, Mdm Speaker, let me to respond to two concerns raised by members of the public.

17. The first concern is that the school did not send anyone to accompany Benjamin to the Police Station. I can understand this concern. However, it is not the practice of the Police to allow teachers or school staff to be with the student in the Police car. Furthermore, current Police protocols do not allow other persons to be present when the student is undergoing questioning at the Police Station. Post-questioning, the student will be released back to the direct care of his or her parents. Nevertheless, the school’s care for its student does not stop there. As I have already mentioned, the school staff will get in touch with the student’s parents to render support and work out any follow up steps to look after the student’s well-being.

18. This leads me to the second concern relating to the decision for Benjamin not to attend the school camp. This camp was to be held on 27 January, the very next day after Benjamin was asked to assist the Police. The camp would have required Benjamin to be away from home for 3 days.

19. As such, when the school counsellor called Benjamin’s mother on the afternoon of 26 January to check on Benjamin’s well-being, the counsellor also raised with Benjamin’s mother if it would be better for Benjamin to remain with his family during this difficult period. His mother agreed and hence it was decided that Benjamin would stay at home.

20. Throughout the conversation, the school’s motivation was to care for Benjamin’s well-being.

21. Mdm Speaker, our Principals and school staff care for and are committed to our students. Our students are at the centre of their purpose and mission. I know that they

  1. hold this commitment close to their hearts, and
  2. discharge their responsibilities every day with professionalism.

In this, I stand fully behind my Principals, teachers and school staff.

Schools Working with Police

22. I have, thus far, focused on what our schools do when the Police come to investigate one of their students. This is only part of the broad picture. I would like to share with the House the overall approach adopted by the Police and schools to address juvenile crime.

23. To steer our students away from crime, the Police and schools collaborate on various programmes and activities to educate students on the law, as well as to let them understand the consequences of crime, and help students who need specific Police support and intervention to extricate themselves from illegal activities or groups.

24. There are also regular engagement sessions between the Police with school leaders and discipline masters. These sessions provide both sides with the opportunities to clarify related issues, including those pertaining to Police protocols.

25. Through these closer ground collaborations, the Police and our schools work towards a holistic solution to educate, prevent, and address the issue of youth delinquency.

Follow-up by North View Secondary School

26. Coming back to Benjamin’s case, I would like to mention an additional point. The death of any single student has an immense impact on the entire school community.

27. When news of Benjamin’s death reached the school on the evening of 26 January, the school leaders and staff were shocked and distraught. There was absolutely no way that they could have foreseen what would happen.

28. The following day, the school leaders and staff attended Benjamin’s wake. Knowing how much Benjamin cherished and treasured his co-curricular activities with the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC), the school arranged for his NPCC friends to write notes of condolences and fond memories of him to share with Benjamin’s family.

29. Just as Benjamin’s passing is mourned by his family, the school community and many others are also mourning. Teachers and counsellors will continue to provide support to Benjamin’s classmates and friends.

30. Whilst I know that nothing that I say today will bring Benjamin back, it is of utmost importance that we all learn from this tragedy. We must always, always do our very best to reach out to those who may require attention and do whatever possible to prevent such terrible incidents from happening.

31. Once again, my colleagues and I would like to express our sincere condolences to Benjamin’s family, friends and schoolmates.

Participating in Police Review

32. Lastly, Mdm Speaker, I would like to share with the House that MOE is also participating in the Police review mentioned by the Minister for Home Affairs and Law. Where needed, we will adapt and refine our schools’ processes to align them with the recommendations arising from this review; including, if the review so concludes, the presence of a school staff as an Appropriate Adult at the Police Station.

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