Thursday, 29 July 2021

River Valley High School incident: Education Minister Chan Chun Sing ministerial statement in Parliament, 27 July 2021

Steps taken to ease student stress and keep schools safe
Revision load for exams reduced, counselling help to be boosted in wake of recent incident
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

More steps are being taken to ensure the mental well-being of students and security measures will be updated without sacrificing the sense of trust and homeliness that comes with the school environment, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing told Parliament yesterday.


He was addressing concerns from MPs and Singaporeans following the River Valley High School incident, such as whether school security measures are sufficient and what is being done to ease the mental stressors students face.

"We do not want to turn our schools into fortresses, which will create unease and stress among our staff and students," he said yesterday, while acknowledging that security at schools was critical.

Mr Chan also gave a brief run-down on the series of events that unfolded on Monday last week when a 16-year-old boy allegedly killed a 13-year-old male schoolmate with an axe in the school toilet.


The debate on his ministerial statement saw 15 MPs speaking up from both sides of the House and flagging issues such as whether there were sufficient counselling resources in school, how the stigma around mental health struggles could be reduced and teachers equipped to look out for signs of distress in their students.


As one near-term measure to reduce exam stress, Mr Chan said students taking the O-, N-and A-level examinations this year will not be tested on some topics covered towards the end of their syllabus. All other students will also have the scope of their year-end exams reduced in a year disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, to cut their revision load.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) also plans to bring back co-curricular activities for secondary schools and pre-universities over the next few weeks as these help students bond and grow emotionally.

MOE also plans to raise the number of teacher counsellors deployed in schools from over 700 to more than 1,000 in the next few years.


Mr Chan added that while all schools now have at least one counsellor, MOE plans to recruit more or "re-role" suitable educators to be counsellors.

All teachers will also receive more training on mental health literacy to help them identify and support students in need, he said.

As for enhancing security in schools, Mr Chan said that the key to staying safe lies not in more intrusive measures, but in greater community vigilance. He noted that there are existing security measures in place such as physical barriers like fences and roller shutters, closed-circuit television cameras and alarm systems that can trigger an alert in the event of an intrusion.


He said: "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."

On the broader issue of the mental well-being of young people, Mr Chan highlighted the need for a community safety net.

He said: "It takes an entire community to help look out for one another, to pick up warning indicators that something may not be going well with an individual close to us, to provide support and comfort to those who may be troubled."


Acknowledging the pressures young people face in a competitive, high-performing environment, he said their challenges are intensified by what happens online.

He also called on families to spend more time listening to the thoughts and feelings of their children, letting them share what they find stressful and giving them space to process their emotions.

He repeatedly called for young people to seek help if they require it and appealed to the public to not stigmatise those who come forward to seek help.

"Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness," he said.

"Let this incident motivate all of us to take down our barriers and treat struggling individuals who step forward with care and compassion," he told the House.











River Valley High School death: How the tragedy unfolded
The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

On July 19, a Secondary 4 student at River Valley High School allegedly killed a Sec 1 student on campus.

Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing outlined the timeline of the incident, adding that not all details can be shared as the case is now before the court.

11.35am

• Towards the end of lunch break, a group of students encounters a Sec 4 student outside a toilet. He is holding an axe and asks them to call the police. The students return to their classroom and inform their teacher.

• The Sec 4 student asks another group of students in the classroom next to the toilet to call the police. The students' immediate response is the emergency "Run-Hide-Tell" lockdown drill: They go into their classroom, lock the doors and call their form teachers for help.

• A teacher arrives at the scene and tells the student to put down the axe. He complies and is escorted away to a meeting room. Other teachers call the police and check the toilet.


• About 10 minutes later, the police arrive and take the 16-year-old Sec 4 student into custody. Police officers and Singapore Civil Defence Force paramedics find a 13-year-old Sec 1 student lying motionless in the toilet with multiple wounds. They pronounce him dead.

• Once the situation is under control, the principal breaks the news to the rest of the staff, then speaks to the students. She tells them that a serious incident has happened and asks all students to contact their parents to tell them that they are safe.

• The principal then speaks to the group of students who are most affected by the incident. Parents are also informed via Parents Gateway - a communication app - that a serious incident has happened in school.

3.15pm

• The school begins to dismiss students, and stations teachers at the school gates to speak to parents and students.


Evening

• Parents are informed that a student has died. The school asks parents to monitor the well-being of their child. Parents who are worried are encouraged to contact form teachers.

• Preliminary investigations by the police show that the two students had not known each other before the incident and that the axe was bought online.


July 20

• The 16-year-old student is charged in court with murder. He is in remand for psychiatric assessment.













About 540 River Valley High School students and teachers have sought help after alleged murder of Secondary 1 student
School set up post for those who needed immediate help, 98 MOE specialists and school counsellors also deployed
By Ang Qing, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

About 540 River Valley High School staff and students have sought psychological support after a Secondary 4 student allegedly killed a Secondary 1 boy on campus on July 19.

The school has more than 2,000 students.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday outlined the support provided to students and staff in the wake of the incident, which he said had a "profound impact" beyond the school.


The day after the incident, which was a public holiday, a "Caring Actions in Response to an Emergency" post was set up in the school for students and staff who needed immediate help, he said.

He added that 98 Ministry of Education (MOE) specialists and school counsellors trained in psychological first aid and trauma management were deployed to provide additional support.

The minister and senior MOE officials also met 350 principals from primary schools to junior colleges the day after the incident.

"We discussed the situation with them and shared with them the resources they could tap to identify students and staff who may display signs of distress so that they can be encouraged to seek help," he said.

When school resumed last Wednesday, River Valley High School teachers called students who were not in school to check on how they were doing.


Responding to Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) on why there was no "timeout" for the school, Mr Chan said this option was discussed.

But the consensus was that it was best for students and staff to come together, take stock of the situation and support one another, rather than let individuals grieve alone at home. Those who needed time off to grieve were granted leave, he added.

Master teachers from MOE were deployed to take over some classes. Supported by MOE specialists and counsellors, teachers also checked in with students to provide them a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings.


"Most heartening, within the school community, the students initiated their own small acts of kindness," said Mr Chan.

He cited how some students distributed small gifts and snack packs while others sent encouraging notes and sweet treats.

"Students are looking out, not just for themselves but also their teachers too and urging them to seek help where needed," he added.

Commending the school's advisory committee, parent-teacher association, parents and alumni as well as counsellors from social service agencies and the community for rallying around it, he said: "All these speak volumes of the compassion and strength of the River Valley High School community."










Balancing security needs with quality school experience: Chan Chun Sing
Schools should not be a fortress but a second home
By Goh Yan Han, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

The key to keeping schools safe lies not in having more intrusive security measures but in prevention and enhanced community vigilance, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday in a ministerial statement in Parliament addressing concerns following the River Valley High School incident.

He added that a collective role is needed to look out for potentially deviant or worrying behaviours and report possible threats.



"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," said Mr Chan.

It was clear in discussions that school leaders agreed unanimously that schools are like a second home for students, the minister noted.

"It is a safe place where values are cultivated, lifelong 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.

Questions were raised about the adequacy of school security measures following the July 19 incident when a 13-year-old male student was allegedly killed by his 16-year-old schoolmate with an axe in a school toilet.

Schools already have various security measures in place, he said. 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 an emergency operations centre.

Mr Chan 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 wishes to return (to a) home with metal scanners and bag checks."

Responding to a supplementary question by Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah (Jalan Besar GRC), who had asked how teachers are prepared for major incidents, Mr Chan said the Ministry of Education would like to have more teachers cross-trained in security incident management.

"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."

Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) asked if all school classrooms can be locked from the inside, so that attackers will not easily enter classrooms where students are hiding. Mr Chan said such doors will be progressively installed in schools that have yet to have them.

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







Helping the young in Singapore with their mental health
By Ng Wei Kai, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

Youth today live in a complex and fast-paced world and their challenges are intensified by the Internet where comparisons with others are constant, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

This adds another layer of social pressure for young people, who are already dealing with family and peer relationships, expectations of themselves and their parents, and the difficulties of coping with the rigours of Singapore's education system, he added.

Mr Chan said Singapore's approach to helping youth with their mental health is to not only strengthen the overall ecosystem of support, but also engender a more caring and nurturing environment.


To that end, there are support structures in place in schools, ranging from preventive efforts to programmes to identify and intervene when it involves students at risk, he said in a ministerial statement in Parliament on the death last week of a River Valley High School student. These efforts include the peer support networks that are being set up in all schools.

Mr Chan said: "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."

He added that all teachers have basic counselling skills and are meant to keep a watchful eye over their students and provide a listening ear, and to reach out to students if they sense something wrong.

Mr Chan said students also have access to another group of teachers with special training, known as teacher counsellors, and each school's counsellor, who is able to provide dedicated support.

School counsellors are also able to refer students to professionals outside schools such as those in the Response, Early Intervention and Assessment in Community Mental Health (Reach) teams or other social service agencies, he added.

"This support network works most effectively when the partnership with parents is strong," he said.

Mr Chan added that there is also a new Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum, which began this year at the lower secondary levels.

He said: "It includes enhanced features on mental health education, designed to develop our students' mental health literacy.

"For example, they learn to differentiate normal stress from distress and mental illness, so that they can seek help before becoming overwhelmed."


Mr Chan also said that over and above dealing with the problems of adolescence, today's youth are learning to cope with the pressures of a competitive, high-performing environment.

He said: "We cannot shield our children from pressure entirely, any more than we can shield them from the common challenges of adolescence.

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

Responding to a question from Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), Mr Chan said Singapore must be careful to ensure that the definition of success is not dictated by others.

Mr Yam had asked how Singapore's education landscape could evolve to become less pressurising.


Mr Chan said it is important to be aware that people do well in life across many dimensions.

He said: "Remember that we have a broad definition of success... We all don't have to go after the same yardstick.

"We all can, in our own way, contribute in different capacities to the development of our nation."







Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness: Chan Chun Sing
Education Minister calls on public not to stigmatise people who come forward to seek help
By Ang Qing, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

A society-wide effort is needed to prevent tragic incidents like the death of the River Valley High School student from happening again, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

He highlighted the need for a community safety net for everyone - especially young people - and encouraged people to look within their social circles for a start.

"Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness," said Mr Chan, as he appealed to the public to not stigmatise those who come forward to seek help - be they students, staff, parents or families.



The minister called on families to spend more time listening to the thoughts and feelings of their children, letting them share what they find stressful and giving them space to process their emotions.

Sharing his own experience as a parent, Mr Chan said: "We can have more frank conversations with our children and families on the definition of success.

"As a parent myself, I have come to realise that success must be defined by helping my children realise their own potential, developing their own strengths and helping them to be confident in themselves.

"Success cannot, should not and must not be the constant need to be compared with someone else and having to live up to somebody else's image," he added.


The greatest assurance parents can give their children is to provide them with the confidence to find their own way, he said.

Mr Chan also called on the public to break "vicious cycles of negativity" by standing up for others and responding with grace and compassion.

"We can stop toxic conversations online and amplify messages of strength, care and positivity through our online networks instead," he said.

"All of us can be kind to each other and look out for one another, no matter how tough the competition might be or how intense the pressure might be."


The Ministry of Education (MOE) will strengthen its partnership with parents through parent support groups, he said, adding that sub-groups can be formed within such groups to focus on the mental well-being of children and families.

Meanwhile, MOE will continue to provide support to the school community, including the affected families, while monitoring the well-being of students from other schools.

He added that the Health Ministry and Ministry of Social and Family Development have set up an inter-agency task force to develop an overarching plan to address mental health and well-being.

Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) asked if MOE would take note of students who are seeking psychiatric treatment at public and private hospitals and clinics so that educators will be better prepared to support them.

Mr Chan said MOE respects the patient confidentiality of students who seek help. But if the Home Affairs and Health ministries assess that a distressed individual could pose a threat to the community, the authorities will work with community partners to manage the situation, he added.

"It's a fine balance," he said. "We do not want to put off people seeking help because they think that they might be stigmatised or that their medical records will be shared with others."

In his replies to other MPs, Mr Chan reiterated the importance of not ostracising those who are in distress, and instead accepting and supporting them.

"Mental distress that some members of our community go through can happen to any one of us," he said.







River Valley High School principal, teachers put aside grief to care for students: Chan Chun Sing
By Ng Wei Kai, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

When Education Minister Chan Chun Sing arrived at River Valley High School (RVHS) after a Secondary 1 student was killed, he was struck by how the principal and teachers put aside their shock and pain to care for the students.

A group of students were waiting to be interviewed by the police, and Mr Chan stopped to speak to them.


Two of them were classmates of the Sec 4 student accused of killing the 13-year-old boy.


"In that moment of darkness, I saw grace, I saw compassion, I saw solidarity among the students and staff of River Valley High."

Mr Chan added that RVHS principal Teo Khin Hiang and the teachers did not even have the time to grieve because they were running around taking care of the students under their charge.

Mr Chan was responding to a question from Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC), who was one of 15 MPs who spoke during a two-hour-long debate in Parliament yesterday after he delivered a Ministerial Statement on the death of the RVHS student on July 19.

Mr David had asked Mr Chan about ways to ensure that a tragedy like this would not happen again. Mr Chan said Singaporeans should collectively take steps to look out for young people and give them a listening ear, and help them grow up in their own ways and find their footing.

He added that everyone must put in the effort to help build a caring and nurturing environment to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.


Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa, Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah and Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon GRC) asked how the Education Ministry (MOE) is tracking the mental health of students.

Ms Poa urged the Government to use tools like questionnaires - already used by mental health professionals - to regularly and systematically monitor mental well-being, similar to the way academic achievement and physical fitness are monitored in schools. "Without measurement, we act and react with a blindfold," she added.

Mr Chan said MOE tracks the mental health of students, but not with surveys. He added that MOE will consider her suggestion.

"But beyond looking at surveys and trends, we need to look at building a relationship of trust that would allow our youth to seek help," he added.

Ms Tan asked how Singapore was strengthening mental health discovery and support measures, and if this involved a systematic way of tracking incidents.

Mr Chan said that in the school system, dedicated teachers are assigned to struggling students, even when they are no longer the form teachers, to build a strong relationship where students feel comfortable opening up to them.

He also said the community must find ways to reach out to young people who have left the school system, as they no longer have the same formal structure of support.


Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) and Ms Hany Soh (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) suggested extending the mental health curriculum to younger students, including those in primary school and pre-school.

Mr Chan said MOE would continue to update and extend the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum - which has components on mental health literacy and how to manage stress - to younger students.

In his reply to Ms Soh, he said MOE would examine how it can implement revisions to the CCE to the upper primary levels first.

Ms He also asked about how MOE plans to combat the stigmatisation of mental health issues.

Mr Chan said: "We agree with Ms He that we must not stigmatise people who come forward to seek help. We hope that the House will help us spread this message.

"Not every distressed individual is a violent individual. The distress may express itself in withdrawal, in self harm, and perhaps only in extreme circumstances, express itself in harming others."







Lighter load for national and year-end school exams to help ease stress: Chan Chun Sing
Scope of exams will be reduced to relieve pressure on students, especially graduating cohorts
By Ng Wei Kai, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

Students taking the GCE O, N and A levels this year will not be tested on some topics covered towards the end of their syllabus, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.

All other students will also have the scope of their year-end exams reduced to relieve some pressure, he added.

Mr Chan said the Education Ministry (MOE) is especially concerned for the graduating cohorts due to the greater than expected disruption to schooling caused by the Delta variant of the coronavirus. The more infectious variant has led to a rise in Covid-19 cases in recent months.


Delivering a ministerial statement yesterday in Parliament on last week's death of a student at River Valley High School, Mr Chan said: "While these topics - common last topics - would have already been taught in schools, removing them from the national examinations would help to relieve the revision load and exam stress for our students."

MOE last month said common last topics would be removed from this year's Primary School Leaving Examination. Last year, common last topics were also removed from the national exam due to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, co-curricular activities (CCAs) for secondary school and pre-university students will be resumed within the next few weeks as more complete their Covid-19 vaccination.

"We are currently putting our plans together on how CCAs can be conducted safely within national safe management measures," said Mr Chan.

He added that activities like CCAs, the National School Games, cohort camps and learning journeys that have had to be suspended due to Covid-19 are avenues for young people to build bonds and grow emotionally.

MOE also plans to increase the number of teacher counsellors deployed in schools from over 700 to more than 1,000 in the next few years, he said.

Teacher counsellors are teachers who have been given counselling training.

Mr Chan added that while all schools now have at least one counsellor, MOE plans to recruit more or "re-role" suitable educators to be counsellors.

All teachers will also receive more training on mental health literacy to help them identify and support students in need, he said.

With immediate effect, there will also be dedicated time at the start of every school term to check on the well-being of students, he added.







River Valley High School tragedy: Having the courage to help, and to ask for help when needed
By Grace Ho, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 28 Jul 2021

The death of a River Valley High School student has shocked the country, including parents in a school WhatsApp chat group which I am part of.

On Sunday night, one of them circulated a recording of the song Scars In Heaven by the rock band Casting Crowns. The chorus goes:

"The only scars in heaven, they won't belong to me and you;

There'll be no such thing as broken, and all the old will be made new;

And the thought that makes me smile now, even as the tears fall down;

Is that the only scars in heaven are on the hands that hold you now."

As I played it, I - and a relative who was with me - started to cry.

Yesterday, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing held space for the collective anguish felt by many Singaporeans. He also took pains to reiterate two points about success - points which are often lost in the wind in highly competitive Singapore.

First, it "cannot, should not and must not" be the constant need to be compared with someone else, and having to live up to somebody else's image, he said.

Second, the definition of success goes beyond the academic.

"The greatest gift that we can give to our children is to accept and love them unconditionally, help them be at ease with who they are," said Mr Chan.

"It is always very sad to see a child come home from school without any sparkle in the eye. Then they are just being made to feel that they are living up to someone else's expectations, and it destroys the confidence of the child."

He asked parents to be models of the good behaviour they wish to see in their children.

"Do our actions and choice of words and actions build people up or tear people down?

"Let us break the vicious cycles of negativity by standing up for others and responding with grace and compassion... no matter how tough the pressures or how intense the competition may be."

His words hit home, and they hit hard.

How many of us have been at the receiving end of sniping and social exclusion, or have sniped at and excluded others ourselves? How many of us have told our children to do better in their exams - and dangled a shiny new toy in front of them in the hope they will get that next AL1? We tell our children what matters is the size of their hearts and the strength of their character. But living in a world where many opportunities are still stacked in favour of the more-qualified, our children - who pick up our every emotional inflection and see through our bravado - know we sometimes do not believe what we preach.

These are larger economic and societal issues no single minister can answer. But for a start, Mr Chan urged everyone not to stigmatise those who seek help. "To those who are struggling, I want you to know that we are here for you. Reach out. Let us know if you need help," he pleaded.

Studies have shown that one in seven Singaporeans has experienced a mental disorder in their lifetime, yet more than three-quarters did not seek any professional help. Which is why it was so important for the minister to come out and say that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Responding to Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), he also said the Ministry of Education plans to increase the number of teacher-counsellors in schools from over 700 to more than 1,000 in the next few years. And to relieve pressure from prolonged Covid-19 disruptions, students taking the O, N and A levels this year will not be tested on some topics covered towards the end of their syllabus.

I thought Mr Chan's suggestion to strengthen parent-school partnerships through the parent support groups was a good one, though how this will be done is not yet clear.

Today, the role played by these groups can be highly dependent on individual personalities. I have to admit to muting my chat group after multiple requests for school donations, event volunteers and even spelling word lists.

The hope, said Mr Chan, is that these groups will not just support the school, but expand their role and be an additional channel of help to children and families.

MPs such as Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) also raised the issue of security. While metal detectors would be too intrusive, can all classrooms be retrofitted with doors that can be locked from the inside? Mr Chan gave the assurance that this will be rolled out progressively to older schools which do not have such doors.

But the authorities should not paradoxically engender a siege mentality, he said, as schools are like a second home for students and a collective role is needed to look out for - and report - worrying behaviours. "We do not want to turn our schools into fortresses, which will create unease and stress among our staff and students."

While mental illnesses have many causes, a growing body of research shows that in young people they are linked to heavy consumption of social media.

There is an urgent need for students to be equipped with specific tools to cope with online abuse. Having personally seen 10-year-olds with suicide ideation, I wholeheartedly agree with Ms Hany Soh's (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) suggestion to expand mental health literacy under the new Character and Citizenship Education curriculum to upper primary levels.

But ultimately, formal programmes can do only so much. As Mr Chan said, it takes a lot for distressed persons to open up and share their feelings with someone they trust, and this trust must be built up over time.

It is every Singaporean's responsibility to amplify positivity in words and action, and to edify instead of destroy. There is no better example of this than what classmates of the 16-year-old student told Mr Chan after the incident.

He said: "Amidst their pain and confusion as to what had happened... they just had one simple request: 'Minister, please help our friend. Please take care of him.' In that moment of darkness, I saw grace, I saw compassion, I saw solidarity among the students and the staff of River Valley High.

"The way they carried themselves, the way they responded to the incident, will be etched in my mind forever."























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