Schools have to look after safety of students, public

North View Secondary School kept to the guidelines, including being discreet when taking Benjamin to the principal's office, said Mr Ng (below).
North View Secondary School kept to the guidelines, including being discreet when taking Benjamin to the principal's office, said Mr Ng.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN
PHOTO: SCREEENSHOT FROM TV

They have responsibility towards students and the police: Minister

The Ministry of Education will be involved in a review of police protocol on how young people are handled when accused of a crime, Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng said in Parliament.

Where needed, schools will adapt and refine their processes after the review, Mr Ng said yesterday when he gave a detailed account of what happened on Jan 26, before North View Secondary School student Benjamin Lim was found dead at the foot of his block.

Hours before, the 14-year-old was taken from his school to a police station for questioning over a molestation case.

The tragedy drew sharp criticism online and from some quarters, with some blaming the school for releasing Benjamin to the police without getting his parents' consent.

Acknowledging people's concerns, Mr Ng said the reality is less straightforward.

  • When a student is asked to meet police
  • • Staff will be discreet when taking the student to meet police. • School leaders will assess the student's physical and emotional well-being, and ask that the number of officers talking to the student be kept to a minimum.

    • If the initial interview is done in school, the school staff will ask to be present.

    • If the student has to go to a police station, the school will ask police to contact the parents, and ensure the student has something to eat if he is hungry.

    • The student should not be handcuffed and should be led to the police vehicle discreetly with minimal exposure to students and school staff. The police, however, will decide whether or not handcuffs should be used.

    • After the student is released, staff will keep in touch with the parents to give support .

    • The school will closely monitor the student's well-being when he is back at school. • The school will make sure the student's identity and ongoing investigations are kept confidential.

"It is reasonable, and indeed expected, that our schools cooperate with police investigations," he added.

SCHOOLS CANNOT OBSTRUCT POLICE INVESTIGATIONS

(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.

ACTING MINISTER FOR EDUCATION (SCHOOLS) NG CHEE MENG

But the minister stressed that "schools will always treat the interests and well-being of students as a key priority".

He also emphasised that while schools have a responsibility towards their students, they also have a responsibility towards the police, who have to uphold the law and keep the country safe.

He added that in such situations, the police - and not the principal or school staff - make the call about whether a student should be interviewed in school or at the police station.

"(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," said Mr Ng.

He outlined eight steps schools take when a student is asked to help police in investigations. (See table)

In the case of Benjamin, he said, the school kept to the guidelines, including being discreet when taking him to the principal's office.

Five police officers in plain clothes had gone to the school that morning to investigate as closed circuit television footage showed that a North View Secondary student was involved in a molestation case.

The principal told Benjamin a police officer would speak to him, and assured the boy he would be present, along with a member of the school staff.

At the end of the interview, when Benjamin was told he had to go to the police station, the principal asked him to call his mother. The school counsellor was also tasked with following up with Benjamin's mother later in the day, to check on his well-being, said Mr Ng.

He noted that some people had asked why no one from the school accompanied Benjamin to the police station.

He said: "It is not the practice of the police to allow teachers or school staff to be with the student in the police car."

Current police protocols also do not allow other people to be present when police are interviewing suspects at the police station, he added.

He also disclosed that Benjamin's mother had agreed her son should not attend a three-day school camp that would start the following day.

She made the decision after a discussion with the school counsellor over the phone. The counsellor, out of concern for the boy, had suggested he stay home during the difficult period, said Mr Ng.

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

Mr Ng added that the school leaders and staff were shocked and distraught at Benjamin's death, and had attended his wake.

He said: "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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2016, with the headline 'Schools have to look after safety of students, public'. Print Edition | Subscribe