Ministerial Statement by Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education, for the Parliament Sitting on 27 July 2021

Published Date: 27 July 2021 01:30 PM

News Speeches

Ensuring the Well-Being and Safety of Our School Community

Mr Deputy Speaker

1. Since the announcement of the Ministerial Statement on the River Valley High School Incident last Friday, several Members have filed related PQs for subsequent sitting. These include Ms Tin Pei Ling, Mr Gerald Giam, Assoc Prof Jamus Lim, Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, Ms Hazel Poa, Mr Darryl David, Mr Desmond Choo, Dr Shahira Abdullah, Ms He Ting Ru and Mr Yip Hon Weng. Given significant public interest, today's Ministerial Statement will also address those questions.

2. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to invite Members to seek clarifications on these issues after the Ministerial Statement. Should their queries be sufficiently addressed, it may not be necessary for them to proceed with their PQs for the future sittings.

Introduction

3. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Today, I will speak on the incident that has weighed heavily on our minds and our hearts. On 19 July, a 13-year-old student at River Valley High School died. No amount of words can describe our shock and grief.

4. On behalf of MOE, we would like to express our deepest condolences to the family for their immeasurable loss. Our thoughts are also with the staff and students of River Valley High School (RVHS).

5. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has and will continue to provide all possible support to the school community, including the affected families.

6. We are also closely monitoring the well-being of our students and the situation in the schools beyond River Valley High School.

7. Since the incident, many people, including several members of this House, have stepped forward to offer their assistance in one way or another.

8. On behalf of the school and our education fraternity, I would like to express our deep gratitude to Honourable Members of the House and the larger community for your support, encouragement and prayers.

9. I would also like to thank the mainstream media for exercising sensitivity in reporting this incident. They did so, out of respect for the families involved and to avoid further traumatising other students and staff.

10. I will share with the House a chronological account of the facts of the incident and describe the support that we are providing to the staff and students. I seek Members' understanding that there are certain aspects of the incident that I cannot discuss as the matter is before the Courts.

11. I will also explain what MOE is doing to ensure the well-being and safety of our wider school community.

12. Finally, I will touch on the wider measures we must take as a society, so that we do the utmost to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.

Summary of Incident at River Valley High School

13. Mr Deputy Speaker, at about 11.35am towards the end of lunch break on Monday 19 July, a group of students encountered a 16-year-old student outside a toilet. He was holding an axe. He asked them to call the Police. The students returned to their classroom and immediately informed their teacher. Subsequently, the 16-year-old student made the same request to another group of students in the classroom next to the said toilet. The students' immediate response was to apply the emergency 'Run-Hide-Tell' lockdown drill – they went into their classroom, locked the doors from within and quickly called their Form Teachers for help.

14. A teacher who first arrived at the scene instructed the 16-year-old student to put down the axe. He complied. He was then escorted away to a meeting room. Thereafter, other teachers called the Police and checked the toilet where the 16-year-old was found outside. Upon receiving the call for assistance, Police arrived within 10 minutes and took the 16-year old student into custody. Police officers and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) paramedics despatched to the scene found a 13-year-old student lying motionless in the toilet with multiple wounds. He was pronounced dead.

15. Preliminary investigations revealed that the two students had not known each other before the incident, and that the axe was purchased online.

16. The 16-year-old student was charged in court for murder the next day, on 20 July. He has since been in remand for psychiatric assessment.

17. Once the situation was under control, the Principal broke the news to the rest of her staff, before speaking to the students. She shared that a serious incident had happened and asked all students to contact their parents to assure them that they were safe.

18. Soon after, the Principal separately spoke to the group of students who were most affected by the incident. Other teachers also came together to support and render assistance.

19. For students who assisted the Police with the interviews, parental consent was duly sought, and every student was accompanied by a teacher throughout the entire process.

20. Other parents were also informed via Parents Gateway that a serious incident had happened in school, so they could look out for their children once they were dismissed for the day.

21. From 3.15pm, students were progressively dismissed, with teachers stationed at various gates to give students and parents assurance.

22. By the same evening, parents were informed that a member of the RV family had passed away. The school advised parents to monitor the well-being of their child. Parents who were worried for their child's well-being were encouraged to contact their Form Teachers to work out ways to support their children both at home and in school.

Support Rendered to River Valley High School

23. MOE's immediate priority was to render full support to the school. On Tuesday 20 July, we set up a "Caring Actions in Response to an Emergency" (CARE) Post at RV to provide psychological support to students and staff who needed immediate help, though it was a non-school day.

24. Since last Wednesday, a total of 98 MOE CARE officers and school counsellors, trained in psychological first aid and trauma management, have put aside their regular duties to provide much needed additional support at the CARE Post. Together, they reached out to affected teachers and students, who were encouraged to walk in anytime they needed someone to talk to.

25. We know this incident has had a profound impact beyond River Valley High School. Together with my senior colleagues at MOE, I met with 350 Principals from Primary schools to Junior Colleges on 20 July (Hari Raya Haji). We discussed the situation with them and shared with them the resources they could tap on to identify students and staff who may display signs of distress so that they can be encouraged to seek help.

26. When school resumed on the morning of Wednesday 21 July, River Valley High School teachers, supported by MOE CARE officers and counsellors, conducted check-in sessions with students to provide them with a safe place to share their thoughts and feelings. Students who wished to could return home. Teachers called those who were not in school to check on how they were doing. Students and teachers who needed time-off were granted leave. Master teachers from MOE were deployed to take over some classes.

27. Mr Deputy Speaker, it will take time for the River Valley High School community to recover. Where needed, students and staff will be referred to healthcare agencies for professional assistance. Since the CARE post was opened in the school, about 540 staff and students have sought support there. Most heartening, within the school community, the students initiated their own small acts of kindness. Some distributed small gifts and snack packs; others sent encouraging notes and sweet treats. Students are looking out not just for themselves but also teachers, and urging them to seek help where needed. The School Advisory Committee, Parent-Teacher Association, parents and alumni, as well as Social Service Agencies have also rallied around RV. This includes counsellors on standby from Boon Lay. All these speak volumes of the compassion and strength of the River Valley High School community.

28. We have received many constructive suggestions, questions and feedback in the wake of this tragedy. They fall largely into two groups – mental health, and the security of our schools. I will address these two issues next.

MOE's Ongoing Efforts on Mental Health

29. We know young people face pressures on many fronts. There are family and peer relationship issues. Some students impose high expectations on themselves; while others have parents who place high expectations on them. Some students also have difficulty coping with the rigours of our education system.

30. Over and above dealing with the problems of adolescence, they are all learning to cope with the pressures of a competitive, high-performing environment. Previous generations also faced their own considerable challenges, including poverty and war. But perhaps for youths growing up in today's complex and fast paced world, their challenges are intensified by what happens online, where comparisons are incessant and unrelenting – adding yet another layer of social pressure.

31. This is why as a society, we must continuously improve and strengthen our support system to better prepare our children to not only withstand the pressures they face but also thrive despite these pressures. We cannot shield our children from pressure entirely; any more than we can shield them from the common challenges of adolescence. But we must do all we can to help our children find themselves and find their footing in an intense environment.

32. Our approach should not only be to strengthen the overall system of support, but to engender a much more caring and nurturing environment in our society. I will share some of our support measures – from upstream prevention, to the identification of, and intervention for those at risk. I will then touch on the whole-of-society efforts we need to support our younger generation.

33. Mr Deputy Speaker, social emotional skills and resilience building form the foundation of MOE's mental health efforts and have been part of our Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum for some time. This year, we began implementing the revised CCE curriculum, starting with lower secondary levels. It includes enhanced features on Mental Health Education, designed to develop our students' mental health literacy. For example, they learn to differentiate normal stress from distress and mental illness, so that they can seek help before becoming overwhelmed. These CCE lessons also teach them to break negative thinking patterns, overcome social emotional problems, seek help when they need to, and manage their emotions. Students are also taught how to actively stand up against stigma around mental health issues.

34. Peer support is another crucial pillar in our efforts. All our schools are putting in place a peer support system to encourage students to look out for one another. Our hope is for all students to learn to sit with a friend who is distressed, show empathy and care, and encourage him or her to seek help from trusted adults like parents, teachers or counsellors.

35. Every school has a support network for our students in need. Beyond equipping our students with the basic coping mechanisms, our teachers keep a watchful eye over their students and provide a listening ear. If they notice something amiss, teachers reach out and guide them to work on their difficulties as they are trained with basic counselling skills.

36. Students also have access to another group of teachers called the teacher counsellors. This is a special group of teachers who have received additional training so that they can help students who are dealing with more challenging social-emotional problems, such as grief and loss.

37. When students need additional support, they can see the school counsellor. School counsellors are specialised personnel who provide dedicated counselling support.

38. When students need further intervention and help to access resources in the community, school counsellors refer them to professionals such as those in the Response, Early intervention and Assessment in Community Mental Health (REACH) teams or social service agencies.

39. This support network works most effectively when the partnership with the family is strong.

New Measures to Be Taken

40. Mr Deputy Speaker, while much is being done, but there is always more we can, we must and we want to do.

41. COVID-19 has compounded the challenges our young people face. Much of their usual social support networks and routines have been disrupted, leading to prolonged periods of uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness for many.

42. COVID-19 safe management measures were implemented in schools so that our children can be physically in schools with their teachers and classmates for as much as possible. At the same time however, we have had to suspend many interactive and community activities – like Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs), National School Games, Cohort Camps, and Learning Journeys. These activities are avenues for our young people to build bonds, and to grow up in a balanced way, both emotionally, physically and psychologically. We plan to reinstate such activities in full as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows for it.

43. We want to create more time and space for students to pursue experiences that broaden their emotional and psychological horizons and strengthen their resilience.

44. To this end, we want to work with parents and community groups to establish a caring and enabling society that gives greater attention to the well-being of our young.

45. Let me outline the measures MOE will undertake in the near term.

  • First, we will strengthen the support network in our schools. All teachers will receive enhanced professional development on mental health literacy as a baseline. This will further strengthen our ability to identify and support students in need.
  • We also aim to deploy more than 1000 teacher-counsellors in the next few years. This is an increase from the over 700 teacher counsellors we have currently deployed in schools.
  • Now, all schools have at least one school counsellor, while some have two. Where feasible, we will recruit more school counsellors or re-role suitable educators, to augment the counselling support network.
  • For our students, we will bring back CCAs for secondary schools and pre-universities within the next few weeks, as more students complete their vaccinations. We are currently putting our plans together on how CCA can be conducted safely within national safe management measures.
  • We will also dedicate more time and attention to checking in on the well-being of our students regularly. Schools currently have orientation programmes for new students at the start of every school year. Henceforth, teachers will devote time at the start of every school term to check in on the well-being of their students, and guide them to know how, where and when to get help.
  • Next, because of the disruptions to learning caused by COVID, we will remove the Common Last Topics (CLT) from the 2021 GCE examinations. Last month, we had announced the removal of the CLT for the 2021 Primary School Leaving Examination. The delta variant of the COVID virus has created much greater disruptions than envisaged and has affected the social and emotional well-being of our students. We are especially concerned for the graduating cohorts, and so we will also remove the CLT from the 2021 GCE O-, N- and A-level examinations. While these topics would have already been taught in schools, removing them from the national examinations would help to relieve the revision load and exam stress for our students.
  • Finally, for the non-graduating students, given the COVID-19 disruptions, all schools will also reduce the scope for their 2021 end-of-year examinations to alleviate their revision load.

Whole-Of-Government Collaborations

46. Mr Deputy Speaker, the mental well-being of our young also requires strengthening the continuum of support across schools, families and our community.

47. We are taking a Whole-of-Government approach to address the issues. MOH and MSF have set up a new interagency Taskforce, which transited from the COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce. Chaired by SMS Janil, this Taskforce brings together the capabilities and capacities of different agencies to develop an overarching national strategy and action plan on mental health and well-being. As a member of this Taskforce, MOE will work with MOH and MSF to give focus to the youth segment.

Whole-of-Society Effort is needed

48. Mr Deputy Speaker, our students are also influenced by factors in and beyond school. This tragic incident could have happened outside of school as well. We will therefore need a whole-of-society effort to keep our children, families and community safe to avoid such a tragic incident from happening again.

49. We need a communal safety net, underpinned by a caring and nurturing culture, for all our people, especially our youths. So that collectively, we send them the unequivocal message that no one will ever be alone; and no one needs to be going through life's toughest moments alone.

50. I'm encouraged to see that community efforts have already been gaining momentum. Since February 2020, people from all walks of life have contributed to the Youth Mental Well-being Network. They have identified gaps around them that they would like to address and are currently developing ground-up solutions to improve youth mental well-being. The projects include creating programmes to enhance emotional resilience, bringing inspirational stories of hope to our youth, and increasing parents' emotional literacy.

51. Since last Monday, the public outpourings of care and support have been overwhelming. We are deeply grateful that so many people want to help ease the pain of the RV family.

52. At the same time, I encourage all of us to look within our own social circles and start from here. As parents, we all want what is best for our children. As they learn to navigate and face tomorrow's challenges on their own, it's not easy to know when to nudge them, when to stretch them, when to help them, or when to let go.

53. Within our own families, we can spend more time listening to our children's thoughts and feelings. Let them share with us what they find stressful. Give them the space to process their emotions. Let us walk alongside them as they grow and handle their new challenges.

54. We can have more frank conversations with our children and families on the definition of success. As a parent myself, I have come to realise that success must be defined by helping my children realise their own potential, developing their own strengths and ultimately be confident with themselves. Success cannot, should not and must not be the constant need to be compared with someone else and having to live up to someone else's image.

55. The greatest gift that we can give to our children is to accept and love them unconditionally and help them be at ease with who they are. As parents, the greatest assurance that we can give our children is to affirm them and give them the confidence to find their own way.

56. Mr Deputy Speaker, we can all help our children learn the right behaviour in the online and offline worlds. Do our actions and choice of words build people up or tear people down? As adults, let us set the right tone and example.

57. Let us work together to break the vicious cycles of negativity by standing up for others and responding with grace and compassion. We can stop toxic conversations online, and amplify messages of strength, care and positivity through our online networks instead. All of us can be kind to each other. All of us can look out for one another, no matter how tough the pressures or how intense the competition may be.

58. To this end, MOE wants to strengthen our partnership with parents through the Parent Support Groups in all our schools. We hope that our Parent Support Groups will not only support the school, but also expand their role to connect with one another and render help to parents whose children and families need more support. I will encourage every Parent Support Group to form a sub-group, focusing on the mental well-being of children and families.

59. To the students and teachers who visited our CARE post at River Valley High School, it took courage to step forward and seek help, and I encourage you to continue doing so. To those who are struggling, I want you to know that we are here for you. Reach out. Let us know if you need help

60. I appeal to everyone not to stigmatise those who come forward to seek help – be they students, staff or families. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Let this incident motivate all of us to take down our barriers and treat struggling individuals who step forward with care and compassion.

School Security Measures

61. Mr Deputy Speaker, let me turn to the issue of school security. I have discussed this issue with school leaders, and they were unanimous in their responses. School is like a second home to our students and all of us. It is a safe place where values are cultivated; life-long relationships are built, and a shared identity is forged. It is a warm and supportive environment that allows students with different learning needs and aspirations to discover their passions and develop their strengths. And above all, it is a trusted space.

62. We have implemented various security measures in schools. For example, schools are secured with physical barriers such as fences, roller shutters, CCTVs and alarm systems that can trigger an alert in the event of an intrusion. Security officers also conduct spot-checks and register visitors before entry into the school.

63. All schools have a School Emergency Structure to deal with emergencies to respond, recover and restore the situation back to normalcy. They cover areas such as first-aid, search, trauma management, evacuation, handling of casualties and managing the emergency operations centre.

64. Teachers are trained to respond to different emergency scenarios. School leaders, staff and students take part in regular emergency training exercises to practise how to handle emergency situations in the school, including security incidents. The Police and SCDF are involved in such training exercises and drills which are part of the wider community safety net.

65. In our efforts to enhance security at our schools, we do not want to compromise the quality of school experience for our staff and students. I have asked myself this difficult question – what would it feel like if I must empty my pockets, be frisked, and have my bag checked before stepping through my house door or school gate? Also, how would my fellow family members and students feel? How would we relate to one another in such an environment? Will it still be "home"? Or will it create in me a siege-mentality? None of us wish to return home with metal scanners and bag checks.

66. But I can understand. Parents are understandably worried. The security and well-being of our students and staff is critical, and schools must continue to be safe places for students to learn, grow and play.

67. The real key to staying safe lies not with more intrusive security measures, but in prevention and enhanced community vigilance. We all have a collective role to play in looking out for potentially deviant or worrying behaviours and report possible threats in our midst. We do not want to turn our schools into fortresses, which will create unease and stress among our staff and students. We also do not wish to paradoxically engender a siege mentality amongst students and staff, causing them to take extreme measures to protect themselves, at the expense of a shared sense of security.

68. MOE will continue to update our security measures in a targeted manner and apply them sensitively to balance the security needs without losing our sense of safety, trust and homeliness of the school environment.

69. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I continue in Mandarin?

70. 在这次不幸事件发生后,立化中学的校长、师生都沉着应对;学生家长,还有社会人士,都给予学校及时的支持与真诚的关怀。我在此对各位表示诚挚的感谢。在我们深感悲伤的同时,我们也在反思该如何避免悲剧重演。其实,类似事件在任何地方、任何时候都有可能发生。因此,我们必须从学校、家庭以及社会三方面着手。

71. 首先,从学校方面来说,

  1. 目前所有教师都受过基本辅导技能的培训,能为有需要支援的学生给予辅导。
  2. 还有一批接受过额外培训的教师辅导员,他们能辅导学生处理更复杂的社交与情感问题。
  3. 每所学校也有受过专业训练的学校辅导员,提供额外支援,并在必要时和专业医务人员合作,确保学生得到进一步的协助。

72. 除了学校以外,也需要我们这些家长的配合。身为家长,我完全理解我们对孩子的关心与期望。我们可以多花时间聆听孩子的心声,帮助孩子发掘各自的潜能。我也时时提醒自己,要培养孩子的自信心,不应该与他人做比较,因为我们的自我价值并不是通过比较而定义的。

73. 就社会层面而言,一个富有爱心和关怀的社会大环境至关重要。我们不应该排斥那些前来寻求帮助的学生或家庭,我们要以身作则,发挥正能量,营造温馨包容的大环境。身为家长,我能体会大家对学校安全的担忧和顾虑。学校就如孩子的第二个家,是他们一起学习、成长、玩乐的地方。因此,在加强学校的保安措施时,我们要确保学校仍然是一个可以完全信任的共享空间。要保障学校每一位成员的安全,关键不在于更多、更严格的安保措施,而在于每个成员能相互照应,关心彼此。

74. 在这起悲剧事件发生后,有很多校友、学生、家长以及社会人士,给予立化深切的关怀,这令人深感欣慰。我在此代表立化感谢大家对立化中学的慰问。在这段期间,我们也看到立化师生和校友如何同步同心,团结一致,共渡患难。

在此,愿立化
屹立不倒,
悲化为强!

立化加油!

Conclusion

75. Mr Deputy Speaker, I visited River Valley High School on the day of the incident and spoke to its leaders, teachers, staff and some students. I would like to commend the school for managing the incident well, and on their grace and confidence under pressure.

76. The students executed the "Run-Hide-Tell" steps exactly as they were trained to do in times of emergencies. To the students of River Valley High School, thank you for showing care and compassion to one another.

77. The teachers responded swiftly, demonstrating courage when engaging the 16-year-old, and keeping the safety of the students as their utmost priority throughout.

78. To the teachers, despite your own grief and shock, you attended to your students and are still helping them to cope with their difficult emotions. You put your students before you as always.

79. To the Principal, who was on medical leave, thank you for rushing back to the school to personally handle the incident. I know how painful it is for you. But I know how you have kept this to yourself while putting your students, teachers and staff interests before all else.

80. All of us, as parents, are appreciative of the leadership and compassion shown by the school. It gives us confidence that our children are in good hands.

81. To all principals, teachers and school counsellors across the entire nation who have been looking out for our students in your own schools, thank you for your dedication, commitment and care.

82. Mr Deputy Speaker, it takes an entire community to help look out for one another, to pick up warning signs that something may not be going well with an individual close to us, to provide support and comfort to those who may be troubled. May we stand united in this effort and be vigilant as we heal as a community and as a nation.

83. I would like to conclude with some words posted on the RV tribute page, which has since drawn more than 3000 contributions: Rest if you must, cry if you must, for when your eyes can finally see clearly, you will see all of us standing in solidarity.

84. Let's join hearts and hands, work together and give this our all - for our children are our future. My children, your children, our children, our future.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

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