Police and school handled teen 'sensitively'

Both took active steps to do so, given Benjamin's age and status as a student, says coroner

State Coroner Marvin Bay yesterday made it clear that the police and North View Secondary had treated Benjamin Lim, 14, properly when he was being investigated for alleged molestation.

They "took active steps to handle (him) and the investigations sensitively, given his age and status as a student", said the coroner.

Benjamin's death on Jan 26 had put the public spotlight on the treatment of young people during criminal investigations, and when schools should release students to the custody of police.

In March, the matter was raised in Parliament, with the Education Ministry committing itself to a review of its protocols in such cases.

Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam also debunked false claims about the way police conducted their investigations.

Yesterday, Coroner Bay pointed out how the five officers who went to the boy's school were in civilian attire and unmarked cars.

Benjamin (above) was found motionless at the foot of his block (left) on Jan 26.
Benjamin was found motionless at the foot of his block (above) on Jan 26.

STATE CORONER MARVIN BAY ON:

OFFICIAL CONDUCT

The evidence... points to police officers and school staff who engaged Master Lim, took active steps to handle Master Lim and the investigations sensitively, given his age and status as a student.

ROLE FOR COUNSELLOR

An additional refinement which may be worth considering would be for the school counsellor to accompany the student to the police station. I am, of course, not suggesting that counsellors should become advocates for the child or actively participate in the interview process, but rather to be present as resource persons to meet any arising needs from the police, the student or his caregivers.

EXPLAINING CONSEQUENCES

Over the last five years, from 2011 to 2015, a total of 7,196 young persons have been required to assist in police investigations. About 80 per cent... were either warned, placed on a Guidance Programme or had no further action taken against them. Only 15 per cent were charged in court... It may be useful to give juvenile suspects a better appreciation of the probable consequences of the offence they are charged with. ''

Benjamin was interviewed by just one officer in the presence of four school staff members. Before he was taken to the police station, he was allowed to speak to his mother.

The coroner noted that the boy was not restrained on the way to Ang Mo Kio Police Division in an unmarked car.

He also highlighted how Sergeant Muhammad Razlan spoke to Benjamin in the car to put him at ease. The boy shared personal information about his family, and laughed when he could not remember how old his siblings were. Seeing that he was quiet, the sergeant asked if he was ill. Benjamin said he was fine.

At the station, Benjamin was interviewed in an open-plan office.

He was also kept separate from adults who were in custody, and released within four hours of being taken to the police station.

It could have been better though if there had been an accompanying counsellor from the school, said Coroner Bay. This is because he or she would be an ideal person to monitor the emotional state of any young suspect, and give real-time information to parents on their child's location, to put them at ease.

The counsellor could also be a resource to the police, giving them a heads-up if the child had a psychological health treatment record. The counsellor might also be able to contact other teachers to provide more background or information that could help police understand the student and circumstances of the case better.

With trained eyes, the counsellor could even help parents to quickly schedule a session with the child's treating psychiatrist or psychologist if there was a need, said the coroner.

While never formally diagnosed with any clinical psychological disorder, Benjamin did in fact show predisposing traits of anger-management issues and difficulties with emotional regulation in his primary school years, said the coroner.

He had been provisionally diagnosed with an emotional disorder of childhood when he was seven. He would scratch himself when anxious or angry, cry for extended periods and be physically aggressive when upset. He was also not doing well academically. But he failed to go for a follow-up appointment.

He also had counselling from Primary 1 to 4. In April 2010, his form teacher had found a note saying "I want to die". He was assessed to have been affected by his grandfather's death. Since 2011, he had not been referred for counselling sessions.

There were signs that the boy did not seem inclined to discuss his problems openly and was "internalising a considerable degree of inner conflict". He had not sought to explain himself to his mother and sister when they questioned him about the police investigation, stating cryptically: "You all said it was me who did it, then it was me."

At home, Benjamin maintained his silence, preferring to play with his phone instead of confiding in his mother and sister.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Police and school handled teen 'sensitively''. Print Edition | Subscribe