Schools should not be a fortress but a second home: Chan Chun Sing on balancing security needs

The key to staying safe lies not with more intrusive security measures, but in prevention and enhanced community vigilance, said Mr Chan.
The key to staying safe lies not with more intrusive security measures, but in prevention and enhanced community vigilance, said Mr Chan.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Security needs at schools will be balanced without losing the sense of safety, trust and homeliness of the school environment, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing on Tuesday (July 27).

He noted that in enhancing security at schools, the Ministry of Education (MOE) does not want to compromise the quality of school experience for students and staff.

The key to staying safe lies not in more intrusive security measures, but in prevention and enhanced community vigilance, Mr Chan said in a ministerial statement in Parliament addressing concerns following the River Valley High School incident.

"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 among students and staff, causing them to take extreme measures to protect themselves, at the expense of a shared sense of security," added the minister.

On July 19, a 16-year-old student allegedly killed a 13-year-old male schoolmate with an axe in a school toilet.

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

The question of whether school security measures are sufficient was raised following the incident.

Mr Chan said that in discussions with school leaders, they agreed unanimously that schools are like a second home for students.

"It is a safe place where values are cultivated; life-long relationships built, and a shared identity 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," he said.

Mr Chan added that a collective role is needed to look out for potentially deviant or worrying behaviours and report possible threats in our midst.

Currently, schools have various security measures in place. They include physical barriers such as fences, roller shutters, closed-circuit television cameras 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.

All schools also have a School Emergency Structure to deal with emergencies, to respond, recover and restore the situation back to normalcy. It covers areas such as first aid, search, trauma management, evacuation, handling of casualties and managing the emergency operations centre, said Mr Chan.

He added that 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 school, including security incidents.

The police and Singapore Civil Defence Force are involved in such training exercises and drills, which are part of the wider community safety net.

Mr Chan said: "I've 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 (to a) home with metal scanners and bag checks."

He acknowledged that parents are understandably worried, adding that the security and well-being of students and staff are critical, and schools must continue to be safe places for students to learn, grow and play.

"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."

Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah (Jalan Besar GRC), in a supplementary question, sought to clarify how teachers are prepared for major incidents and steps that can be taken for school security to be strengthened. 

Mr Chan said MOE would like to have more teachers cross-trained in security incident management, adding: “Going forward, we will want to expand the group of people who are trained in such incident management so that every school can have the confidence to respond adequately should such an incident happen.”

In terms of security drills, Mr Chan said MOE will need to apply a variety of scenarios to alert security managers, students and staff to the range of threats.

“But despite that range of threats, some of the basic fundamental drills, the principle behind the drills are applicable, and that has been demonstrated in this particular incident,” he added.

Mr Chan had noted in his ministerial statement that in the River Valley High School incident, the students’ immediate response was to apply the emergency ‘Run-Hide-Tell’ lockdown drill, which was learnt as a response to the threat of terrorism.

The minister said when the students saw the 16-year-old outside the toilet with an axe, they went into their classroom, locked the doors from within and quickly called their form teachers for help.

Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) asked if all school classrooms can be locked from the inside, so that attackers will not be able to easily enter classrooms where students are hiding. 

He also asked if students, including young primary school pupils, are taught how to lock the doors.

In response, Mr Chan said: “At this point in time, not all schools have classrooms where they can lock (the doors) from the inside.”

He said such doors will be progressively installed in the schools that have yet to have them.

Mr Chan said this is usually done  in tandem with a school’s renovation programme or under MOE’s Programme for Rebuilding and Improving Existing schools, which upgrades or rebuilds schools.

He added that teachers and students are taught to barricade themselves in the classrooms, working with the type of door they have at this point in time.