Teen fails in bid for damages from school over 'bullying'

Judge finds no causal link between alleged bullying and girl's move to study overseas

The High Court has struck out a claim by a teenager who sued a top Singapore school for failing to protect her from alleged bullying by her peers.

The student, who was 15 at the time, had also sought aggravated damages and compensation for the costs of her study in England, where she moved to allegedly because of her ordeal.

Justice George Wei yesterday released judgment grounds of the case, which did not name any of the parties involved. He found the case - the first of its kind here - was "legally and factually unsustainable".

"Even assuming (she) is able to prove all the facts pleaded in her statement of claim, I find that she would not be able to demonstrate that the school owed her a duty of care in the pleaded factual matrix."

The judge found there was no causal link between the alleged bullying and her move to study for her A levels in England in 2013 to support her claim for damages.

He made it clear that, on principle, schools have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for their students but at issue in the case was the "extent or scope" of that duty.

The alleged bullying acts consisted largely of "rude, insensitive and sarcastic remarks and posts made both online and in school" over two periods in 2012 and 2013.

During the first period, the remarks were made by members of the school's Chinese orchestra after the girl expressed her desire to take on the positions of both secretary and student conductor. Peers accused of her being "greedy" by seeking "glam and glory".

The second spate allegedly occurred when she and her parents complained to the school.

As a result, she said, she suffered from eczema and was "forced" to leave Singapore against her will.

The school had earlier failed to strike out her claim before a High Court assistant registrar (AR) who ruled that a school's duty of care to students in preventing cyber bullying involved novel questions of law best left to a trial court. However, the AR struck out the student's claim for the costs of her A-level education in England.

Both the school, defended by Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi, and the student, through lawyer R. Shan-kar, appealed to the High Court.

Justice Wei noted that both sides agreed a school had a duty of care to its students to prevent harm but not from any sort of harm.

He found it "plain and obvious" the school was not duty-bound to intervene in the kind of bullying which the student specified. " A law that requires schools to intervene in every episode of unhappiness between their students... would impose a heavy burden on the school and its teachers. Courts therefore have to tread carefully, given the public policy considerations," he said.

He pointed out that it was not foreseeable that the student would suffer the loss and damage she claimed, or any physical or recognised psychiatric injury from name-calling and being ostracised.

"She was not a vulnerable victim who was psychologically traumatised by what was going on..."

At best, she suffered nothing more than a few critical comments from a few unhappy peers, most of which were not even expressly said for her to hear, and the conduct was not serious enough to ground a negligence suit and justify a full trial, added Justice Wei.

"The point, however, is that the control of bullying in schools and elsewhere is not simply a matter for the tort of negligence. It requires a broader response by society and Parliament."

The girl is now heading to Oxford University to study music.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'Teen fails in bid for damages from school over 'bullying''. Print Edition | Subscribe