SINGAPORE - Schools will always treat the interests and well-being of students as a key priority, Acting Minister of Education (School) Ng Chee Meng told Parliament on Tuesday (March 1).
But they also have to cooperate with the police during investigations, he added, giving details of what happened at school before 14-year-old Benjamin Lim was interviewed by Police in January.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) is also participating in the Home Affairs Ministry's (MHA) review of police protocol when young people are being interviewed, Mr Ng said.
The tragic death of the Sec 3 student had drawn sharp debate on social media, with several people saying that a school has the duty to shield its students from the police and not release them for investigations without parental consent.
Benjamin, a student at North View Secondary School in Yishun, was found dead at the foot of his block in Yishun after he was arrested for allegedly molesting an 11-year-old girl.
Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had said in a ministerial statement delivered in Parliament earlier that the girl had made a police report with her father after the incident in a lift, and the suspect was identified as Benjamin through closed-circuit television footage.
Mr Ng said the public concerns "are fully understandable" and they sounded "plausible, but it is not so straightforward" as schools have responsibilities to both the student as well as the police, in the interest of public safety.
As the police play the public function of upholding the law and keeping the country safe, it is both reasonable and expected of schools to cooperate with police investigations, he said.
It is also the police's call - and not that of a school principal or staff - to decide if a student suspected of committing a crime should be interviewed in the school or a police station.
"Our schools provide a safe, nurturing and conducive environment for learning. Our 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," he said.
He added: "The death of any single student has an impact on the entire school community. When news of Benjamin's death reached the school on the evening of Jan 26, the school leaders and staff were shocked and distraught.
"There was absolutely no way that they could have foreseen what would happen."
GUIDELINES SCHOOLS ADOPT
Mr Ng also went through eight guidelines schools adopt each time a student is asked to assist the police in investigations.
- School teachers or staff "will be discreet when bringing the student to meet with the police" to ensure no undue attention on the student.
- School leaders will then assess the student's physical and emotional well-being before letting the police speak to the student, he said. School leaders will also request that the number of police officers speaking to the student be kept to a minimum.
- If the interview with the police is conducted in the school, school leaders or staff will request to be present "to afford greater assurance to the student".
- If the student has to be taken to a police station, the school will ask that the police contact the student's parents to inform them of the situation. The school will also ensure the student has something to eat if he is hungry.
- The school will also request that the student not be handcuffed and be escorted to the police vehicle discreetly, "with minimal exposure to other students and school staff". The police, however, will decide if handcuffs should be used or not.
- After the police releases the student, the school staff will keep in touch with the parents "to render support and to work out any follow-up steps to look after the well-being of the student".
- The school will closely monitor the student when the student is back to school.
- The school will also protect the confidentiality of the student's identity and the ongoing police investigations.
These eight steps "are not new to our schools", said Mr Ng.
WHAT HAPPENED IN BENJAMIN'S CASE
In Benjamin's case, when the police arrived at his school, the principal had sent a staff to look for the student in the canteen.
"This was done discreetly and Benjamin was quietly brought to the principal's office," said Mr Ng.
The principal then spoke with Benjamin and told him that a police officer would speak to him, and assured the student that he, as well as a school staff, would accompany him through the meeting. A police officer then entered the room to speak to the schoolboy.
When Benjamin was taken to the police station, the principal asked that Benjamin give his mother a call. The principal also made sure that Benjamin's mother knew where her son would be taken to, said Mr Ng.
The principal also instructed the school counsellor to call Benjamin's mother later in the day to check on his well-being.
Mr Ng noted that some members of the public had questioned why no one from the school accompanied Benjamin to the police station, and why the schoolboy was told to not attend a three-day school camp, which would take place the following day.
He added that he understands the concerns, but "it is not the practice of the police to allow teachers or school staff to be with the student in the police car".
"Furthermore, current police protocols also do not allow other persons to be present when the student is undergoing questioning at the police station," he added.
Regarding the school camp, Mr Ng said a school counsellor had called Benjamin's mother later in the day to check on the student's well-being.
The counsellor also discussed with Benjamin's mother if it would be better for Benjamin to remain with his family during this difficult period, said Mr Ng.
"His mother agreed and hence it was decided that Benjamin would stay at home," he said.
"Throughout the conversation, the school's motivation was to care for Benjamin's well-being."
WORKING WITH POLICE
Mr Ng also spoke on the approach schools and the police take to educate, prevent, and address the issue of youth delinquency.
Each year, schools deal with an average of 1,350 student arrest cases. These arrests, said Mr Ng, involve theft, mischief by fire, wilful trespass, sexual offences, rioting and, in some cases, endangerment to life.
"Some of these are serious crimes. Our schools have been working closely with the police so that such behaviour can be curbed effectively, and to ensure that these students are able to be guided back onto the right track through early education, intervention and reform," he added.
Students are taught the law as well as the consequences of crime. There are also programmes and activities to help students who need specific police support and intervention to extricate themselves from illegal activities or groups, he said.
The police also meet regularly with school leaders and discipline masters to discuss issues such as police protocols.
With the MOE participating in MHA's review, Mr Ng said: "Where needed, we will adapt and refine our schools processes to align them with the recommendations arising from this review, including if the review so concludes, the presence of a school staff as an appropriate adult at the police station."