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Students leave River Valley High School in the late afternoon on July 19, 2021. — TODAY pic
Students leave River Valley High School in the late afternoon on July 19, 2021. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, July 27 — After a suspected murder at River Valley High School that shook the nation last week, the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) priority was to provide psychological aid to students and staff members who needed immediate help, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.

Delivering a ministerial statement in Parliament today, Chan said that his ministry set up a post to offer psychological support at the school last Tuesday.

The day before, a 16-year-old student allegedly killed a 13-year-old boy at the school in Boon Lay. They did not know each other, based on early investigations. 

Since last Wednesday, 98 MOE officers from a team offering psychological aid as well as school counsellors — all of whom are trained in psychological first aid and trauma management — have put aside their regular duties to staff the post.

“Together, they reached out to affected teachers and students, who were encouraged to walk in any time they needed someone to talk to,” said Chan in his ministerial statement on the incident.

Since the post opened at the school, about 540 staff members and students had sought support there. 

Last Monday, the 16-year-old Secondary 4 student was arrested for allegedly killing his schoolmate. He was charged in court the following morning with murder and has been remanded for psychiatric evaluation. 

A police prosecutor said that early investigations found that the 16-year-old was previously a patient at the Institute of Mental Health and that the police had attended to a case of attempted suicide by the boy in 2019. 

Under the Children and Young Persons Act, which covers young persons under 18, neither of the boys can be named.

Chan said that when school resumed last Wednesday after the Hari Raya Haji public holiday, teachers, along with the MOE officers and counsellors, also checked in on students of River Valley High School to provide them with a safe space to air their thoughts and feelings.

Those who were not in school received calls from their teachers to find out how they were doing.

Students and teachers who needed time off from school were granted leave and master teachers from MOE were deployed to take over some classes. 

“It will take time for the River Valley High School community to recover,” said Chan. 

“Where needed, students and staff will be referred to healthcare agencies for professional assistance.”

Helping children find footing

Beyond the confines of River Valley High School, the incident has had a profound impact elsewhere, said Chan. 

Last Tuesday, Chan and his senior colleagues from MOE met more than 300 principals from primary schools to junior colleges to discuss the situation. 

They were also told of the resources they could tap to identify students and staff members who may display signs of distress, so that they can be encouraged to seek help.

He also told the House that moving ahead, the country must not only strengthen the overall ecosystem of support for students, but “engender a much more caring and nurturing environment” in society.

Some of the measures that are already in place, he said, include prevention as well as the identification of and interventions for those at risk.

For example, the revised Character and Citizenship Education curriculum was rolled out this year, starting with lower-secondary students.

The curriculum includes features on mental health education, which are designed to develop students’ mental health literacy. 

“They learn to differentiate normal stress from distress and mental illness, so that they can seek help before becoming overwhelmed,” said Chan.

He added that such lessons also teach students to break negative thinking patterns, overcome social-emotional problems, seek help when needed and manage their emotions.

Students are also taught how to actively stand up against stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Beyond the classroom, schools are putting in place a peer support system to encourage students to look out for one another. 

“Our hope is for all students to learn how to sit with a friend who is distressed, show empathy and care, and encourage him or her to seek help from trusted adults like parents, teachers or counsellors,” said Chan.

At present, teachers are trained in basic counselling skills, which allow them to keep an eye out for their students and lend an ear or provide guidance when needed.

If there are more challenging social-emotional problems, such as grief and loss, he said that students may seek help from teacher-counsellors, who have received more training to provide such support.

Students may also seek dedicated counselling support from school counsellors.

These counsellors could then refer them to professionals, such as those in social service agencies or community mental health teams. 

“We cannot shield our children from pressure entirely, any more than we can shield them from the common challenges of adolescence,” said Chan. 

“But we must do all we can to help our children find themselves and find their footing in an intense environment.”

Schools shouldn’t become ‘fortresses’

In his statement, Chan also touched upon the issue of security in schools, which he described as a “second home” for students.

At present, MOE has rolled out various security measures in schools, including fences, roller shutters, security cameras and alarm systems that can trigger an alert during an intrusion. 

Security officers also carry out spot checks and register visitors before allowing them into schools. 

In addition, schools have a set of guidelines to help them deal with emergencies. These guidelines cover areas such as first aid, search, trauma management, evacuation, handling of casualties and managing an emergency operations centre.

School leaders, staff members and students also regularly take part in emergency training exercises with the police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force to practise how to handle emergency situations in schools, including security incidents.

Nevertheless, Chan said that as part of efforts to improve security at schools, the quality of the school experience for students and staff members should not be compromised.

“I have 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?” said Chan.

“Will it still be home? Or will it create in me a siege mentality? None of us wishes to return to a home with metal scanners and bag checks.”

The key to staying safe, said Chan, lies not in more intrusive security measures, but in prevention and more community vigilance.

On MOE’s part, he said that the ministry would continue updating its security measures and “apply them sensitively” to balance the security needs, without “losing the sense of safety, trust and homeliness of the school environment”.

“We all have a collective role to play in looking out for potentially deviant or worrying behaviours, and report possible threats in our midst,” said Chan. 

“We do not want to turn our schools into fortresses, which will create unease and stress among our staff and students.” — TODAY

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