Teen's suicide

School and police protocols under spotlight

School and police protocols have come under the spotlight since the death of a 14-year-old boy after he was picked up from school by police and then arrested for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old.
School and police protocols have come under the spotlight since the death of a 14-year-old boy after he was picked up from school by police and then arrested for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old. PHOTO: SHIN MIN

What should schools do when police arrive to take in a student for questioning? And should police be allowed to question minors alone?

These issues have come under the spotlight since the death of a 14-year-old boy after he was picked up from school by police and then arrested for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old.

Last week, his father wrote an open letter detailing what happened the day Benjamin fell from the 14th floor of their flat in Yishun. "The school, in my opinion, should never have handed over my son to five police officers during recess hours without having to wait for the arrival of family members," he said in the letter.

THE SCHOOL'S ROLE

On Jan 26, police officers arrived at Benjamin's secondary school. The boy, who was in Secondary 3, was taken to the principal's office after he was identified from CCTV footage of the alleged suspect, and then taken away for further questioning.

According to Benjamin's father, his wife first found out about the incident when she received a call from her son's mobile phone.

A police officer explained that Benjamin was being investigated for a case of "outrage of modesty" which occurred outside school in the afternoon of Jan 25.

The officer added that Benjamin would be taken to Ang Mo Kio police station for further investigation. She was also allowed to speak to her son. According to his father, Benjamin's mother then "rushed to the school" only to find out that the boy had already left with officers.

Some parents have wondered if this is the right protocol.

Madam Agnes Ang, a 49-year-old commercial manager who has three sons aged 14 to 21, said: "The police should wait for parents to arrive before taking their child to the police station."

IT engineer Jason Tay, 47, whose two children are aged 14 and 11, said: "I wonder why the school allowed the police to take the boy away without his parents' approval."

The Ministry of Education (MOE) last week explained that schools have a set of guidelines "which corresponds to the police's guidelines on working with minors".

The school will speak to the student before the police do, and the parent or guardian will be contacted before the student leaves with the police. "While the student is assisting in police investigations, the school will continue to keep in contact with the student and the parent or guardian to render the necessary support," it added.

A former vice-principal of a secondary school, who declined to be named, told The Sunday Times that schools have to cooperate with the police in such cases, and the standard practice is for schools to inform parents when their child is being taken away by police. "In this case, it sounds like the school tried to contact the boy's parents through his own mobile phone," he said.

He explained that the school would usually be notified by police a few days after an arrest, and asked for a report on the student, including his attendance, conduct and counselling reports.

"Whoever is taking care of the child should be the party informing the child's parents in such cases," said Dr Carol Balhetchet, a clinical psychologist and senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society. This is because they can act as a bridge to let parents know what is going on.

POLICE QUESTIONING

Benjamin's parents have also raised another issue: Why was his mother not allowed to see him in the station until police were ready to release him on bail.

While Singapore's Children and Young Persons Act legislates for how those below 16 should be treated by the courts, there is no specific section on how police investigations of juveniles should be carried out. But a 2003 report by Singapore to the United Nation's Committee on the Rights of the Child made it clear that "the arrest, detention or imprisonment of juveniles are measures of last resort".

"When a juvenile below 16 years old is arrested for any offence, his/her parents will be informed of the arrest and requested to go to the police station. The investigation officer has to complete his preliminary investigations in four hours and release the juvenile on bail to the custody of the parents."

But in Britain and parts of Australia, officers have to find an "appropriate adult", such as a parent, guardian or social worker, to sit in when questioning a person under 18.

Dr Balhetchet said the presence of a trained professional, such as a counsellor or social worker, during the interview could comfort both the child and parent, helping to "contain the situation".

"It is important to make them feel safe, comfortable, and not as if they have to give you the answer they think that you want," she said.

Madam Adeline Chung, 45, a housewife and mother of three children aged 10 to 15, supports the idea of having an adult such as a trained volunteer to look out for the child's welfare during questioning, although having a parent there may interfere with investigations.

Videotaping interviews will also "provide an independent, objective insight" as to what went on during the questioning, said criminal lawyer Sunil Sudheesan. It will also ensure that neither party can make "baseless allegations".

Last July, the Ministry of Home Affairs said it will pilot the videotaping of interviews during investigations in the first quarter of this year.

Others have suggested that the police set up a special unit trained to deal with juveniles, the way the the court system here has its Youth Court.

After Benjamin's death, the police have said they will review their processes.

Retired police force superintendent Lee Swee Thin believes the police are following the right protocol. Suspects should not be allowed to speak to their parents as it might influence investigations, he said. And having a third party could raise concerns about confidentiality.

"We must be fair to both parties," he said, referring to the victim of any alleged crime. While the police have to exercise care when dealing with young suspects, family members of victims of crimes also expect them to get to the bottom of the case.

Mourning the loss of his son, whose death is now the subject of a coroner's inquiry, Benjamin's father told The Sunday Times:"We are still trying to cope and we are deeply encouraged by the strong support from members of the public."

•Additional reporting by Amelia Teng and Dominic Teo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'School and police protocols under spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe