Who pulled him out of school camp?

North View Secondary School.
North View Secondary School. PHOTO: ST FILE

A key point of dispute in the coroner's inquiry into Benjamin Lim's death was over who decided to pull him out from a school camp - the school or the family.

Benjamin was found dead on the afternoon of Jan 26, minutes after his mother told the Secondary 3 student that he would not be allowed to go to the three-day camp for his cohort.

Yesterday, State Coroner Marvin Bay said he found North View Secondary School counsellor Karry Lung's account to be "more reliable" compared to that of Benjamin's mother and sister.

Madam Lung said that when she met Mrs Lim in the school library before noon on Jan 26, she told her that Benjamin might not be in a good state of mind to attend the camp. Mrs Lim then said her son would not attend it, she said.

In Mrs Lim's account, she did not recall this discussion.

Madam Lung also said she called Mrs Lim after 4pm to check if Benjamin was okay, and told Mrs Lim that he might be experiencing some stress from the police investigations. She then told Mrs Lim that the school felt it would be good for his family to keep him company as he might not be able to handle going to camp, which was to start the next day.

She said she asked what Mrs Lim thought, and the mother replied "okay". Madam Lung then said that if Benjamin wanted to, he could do e-learning instead.

However, Mrs Lim's account was that the counsellor merely made a peremptory and brief call to tell her that the school had decided not to let Benjamin attend the camp. They wanted him to stay at home and do e-learning.

Coroner Bay said he found Madam Lung's account more reliable as it was supported by a colleague and featured in a school meeting later.

After the meeting and her call to Mrs Lim, Madam Lung sent an e-mail at 4.28pm to the principal. In it, the counsellor wrote that she had expressed the school's concerns about Benjamin's emotional well- being before suggesting that his family spend time with him.

She added that she had reminded Mrs Lim that her son could do e-learning if he did not attend the camp. "Mum responded well to the school's recommendation and will keep Benjamin at home," she said in the e-mail.

The coroner said the e-mail stands as a "near-contemporaneous record" of what happened.

Also, the e-mail was sent before Benjamin's death at 4.36pm. The counsellor learnt of the death at 6pm. "She would have therefore had no discernible incentive to embellish events... so as to cast her representations to Mrs Lim in a more favourable light," he said.

But while Mrs Lim and her daughter's accounts were "disproven", they were probably not out to "exaggerate or distort the facts", said Mr Bay. He noted that they had not managed to find Benjamin at school that day.

"It is equally plausible that their recollections were affected by the fact that they were frantically searching for answers of what had happened to (him) at the time," he said.

In their state of "cognitive overload", Madam Lung's attempt to discuss the school camp might not have registered. "It is also possible that the trauma (Benjamin's death) may well have affected their ability to process and recall these ancillary details," said the coroner. "(Benjamin) was unfortunately passed a garbled message that a peremptory decision had been made for him not to be part of the school camp."

He added later: "A young person who is excluded from a group activity, without an appropriate explanation, may be prone to feel a sense of ostracism and exclusion."

Seow Bei Yi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Who pulled him out of school camp?'. Print Edition | Subscribe