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Teen says bullying led her to try suicide; MOE admits school lapse but ‘effective disciplinary action’ then taken

SINGAPORE — A 14-year-old student and her parents are disappointed with the response from the Ministry of Education (MOE) to what they say was sustained bullying of the girl both online and at school. The incidents caused her to attempt suicide and left her in the hospital for 12 days.

Teen says bullying led her to try suicide; MOE admits school lapse but ‘effective disciplinary action’ then taken

A girl, now 14, said that she was bullied repeatedly in Secondary 1. The abuse caused her to try to take her own life, she said.

  • A student said she was assaulted by bullies and harassed with insults but felt the school did not take steps to protect her
  • In one incident, she said the school failed to follow up on a cyber-bullying incident in which she was told that she should kill herself
  • The 14-year-old wants schools and MOE to improve the way they respond to bullying and violence
  • MOE acknowledged one lapse in the school's handling of a report by her but said the school had taken effective disciplinary action over other bullying incidents
  • The school said it does not tolerate bullying and "regrets that despite (its) best efforts, the support it provided was inadequate for the student".

 

SINGAPORE — A 14-year-old student and her parents are disappointed with the response from the Ministry of Education (MOE) to what they say was sustained bullying of the girl both online and at school. The incidents caused her to attempt suicide and left her in the hospital for 12 days.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, MOE on Friday (Dec 18) acknowledged one lapse in the school’s handling of a report by the girl regarding a bullying incident. However, it said that the school had taken effective disciplinary action over other bullying incidents affecting the student.

A school spokesman said on Saturday that it "adopts a zero-tolerance approach towards bullying and takes the safety and well-being of every student seriously", adding that it "strives to investigate every reported case and provide support to all affected students".  

The family has requested anonymity to protect the girl, who is in a fragile state.

They said that for almost a year, while the girl was in Secondary 1 last year, she was bullied by at least five boys in separate incidents after being told to kill herself in an anonymous social media post.

The girl, who is dyslexic, described her anguish at being bullied in a four-page handwritten letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, dated Dec 10, which also urged him to improve the way schools and MOE address bullying.

Detailing repeated incidents of physical and online bullying, the girl wrote: “As the bullying continued, I felt harassed and intimidated, and started to feel unsafe not knowing who wished me dead and who might attack me next. I sank really low and cut myself.”

She said that she had been relieved to have home-based schooling during the circuit breaker imposed earlier this year to halt activities due to Covid-19. Then, when she learnt that classes were resuming, she was “terrified”.

“Four days later, I took an overdose. I just could not bear the thought of having to face my bullies...” she wrote.

The girl had left the school in June this year and moved to a new school.

Her parents, who are in their 50s, sent their daughter's four-page letter to TODAY on Wednesday after being “stunned” and dissatisfied with MOE’s initial response, which reached them on Tuesday.

In a second MOE response, addressed to the girl, an MOE cluster superintendent said that she had been “brave” to share her concerns with PM Lee.

“We would like to assure you that the school had paid serious attention to the concerns raised by you, and they sent a firm message to students that any form of bullying is not acceptable,” the cluster superintendent wrote.

However, the girl and her parents are not satisfied with the response by MOE or the school. The parents asked that the school not be named, to ensure the girl’s anonymity.

The girl’s mother said that her daughter is seeing both a psychologist and psychiatrist. The girl had been disappointed with both of MOE's responses because she had hoped that her letter could move the authorities to implement changes at the national level, if not at the school level.

In an email response to MOE, shared with TODAY, the mother asked for more details on the “serious attention” and “firm message to students”, adding that the matter had not been addressed with the general student body when the girl was at the school.

The family said that the school’s principal claimed to have “zero tolerance” to bullying but proposed no specific action to stop the bullying from recurring.

Among other insults directed at the girl, a March 2019 post on the anonymous messaging application Tellonym called the girl “weird”, “dumb and stupid” and other rude names. It also said that she should “go die and go to hell”, and that no one would even miss her, not even her family.

The family said that the school claimed in February this year to be unaware of the Tellonym post, which surfaced in March 2019, although the girl said that she had reported the matter to a teacher.

The principal then told them in March that it would be a bad idea to interview students to identify who was behind the social media post because “more people would think (the girl) is weird”, they added.

LAPSE IN COMMUNICATION

In response to TODAY’s queries, Ms Liew Wei Li, the director of schools at MOE, said that it is aware of the girl’s case and acknowledged that a lapse had resulted in a failure to address the girl’s report on the Tellonym post.

“Due to a lapse in communication between the school staff, the school had not followed up on the initial Tellonym post when the student first reported it,” she said.

When the school management was alerted to it, they immediately followed up with an appropriate investigation, she added.

As for the other bullying incidents the girl had faced in school, Ms Liew said: “MOE understands that the school took appropriate and effective disciplinary action, and the incidents ceased.”

She added: “Throughout, the school counsellor had walked closely with the student to provide every support, and the school leaders worked together with the parents.”

Further addressing the lapse in communication, Ms Liew said that the ministry has impressed upon the school that such lapses are unacceptable and reiterated the need for tighter follow-ups.

The school spokesman said that it "regrets" that the case of the hurtful anonymous Tellonym post was not followed up in 2019 when it was first reported.

"We have since reviewed our internal processes to ensure that every incident of bullying is managed in a timely and appropriate manner."

The spokesman added that when it found out about the lapse in follow-up on the anonymous Tellonym post made in 2019, it promptly conducted its investigations and disciplined the student responsible for re-posting the original hurtful post.

"However, the originator of the post could not be identified."

The spokesman said that throughout the case, the school had "worked closely" with the affected student, the parents, the errant student and his parents, as well as the police and also provided counselling and "other necessary support to the affected student".

"We further regret that despite best efforts, the support it provided was inadequate for the student. Nonetheless, if there is anything else that the school could do to assist in the student’s recovery process, it stands ready to assist."

WHAT THE GIRL WENT THROUGH

About a week after the Tellonym post, a boy in her class threw a pack of biscuits at her face, causing her lip to bleed. Another boy had told him to aim it at her face.

One of the boys also taunted her, saying that he would go blind and get cancer if he looked at her, compared her with a dustbin and said that it was safer to look at it.

The girl reported the matter again. Still, no action was taken, she said.

A few months later, she said that she was bullied again on different occasions by another boy who hit her on her head, touched her face and tried to kick her in between her legs while she was seated.

The discipline master got involved this time, but the parents were told that it was not an appropriate time to address the matter yet because it was exam time, and the father of the offending boy had died.

‘NOTHING HAS CHANGED’, GIRL SAYS

The parents pursued the matter in February this year, and the school claimed that it had already resolved and closed the case since the boy had been pulled aside after assembly one day to apologise to her.

The girl wrote that she was asked at that time if the apology was okay, but she agreed then only because she felt “very uncomfortable” to have to face the bully at such close proximity.

That same month, in February, another boy used a vulgarity and called her a “dyslexic ****” at least three times as he walked past her, while another post emerged on Tellonym, this time asking when she was going to quit her sport.

Relaying her feelings in her letter to PM Lee, she wrote: “I tried to be brave and reported the bullying incidents, thinking the school will do something. When I returned to school in January this year, I realised that nothing had changed.”

She added that the school counsellor wanted to see her but she could not talk about it. Instead she wrote the counsellor a letter expressing thoughts of self-harm and jumping off a school building, she said.

The girl’s mother told TODAY that she started to withdraw completely from her friends, did not trust everyone, had trouble sleeping, and was anxious about who was going to attack her next.

“She went to school fearing for her life,” the mother said.

‘LOST OUR CHILD TO BULLYING AND VIOLENCE’

The couple said that they are now highlighting the case because they believe no parent should have to experience what they went through, including being awoken in the middle of the night in May this year and told that their child tried to overdose on pills.

Their daughter was rushed to the hospital, where she was warded for 12 days and given four weeks of medical leave.

The mother said: “There are increasing numbers of youth suicide. Some of the triggers are bullying. Then you think: What is the school doing? It is so preventable. Address it. Especially when you have a child that has already been proactive in informing the school and counted on the school to do something.”

She added: “We really lost our child to bullying and violence.”

Asked how MOE schools typically deal with bullying incidents, Ms Liew said that the school will investigate and ensure appropriate disciplinary actions are taken “so that students understand there are consequences for antisocial and hurtful behaviour”.

Students are taught to report cyber-bullying incidents to the online service provider, and to use online tools such as security settings and reporting functions so that they can navigate the online space more safely.

MOE will strengthen the training for school personnel to foster positive class culture, investigate bullying and facilitate the restoration of relationships, Ms Liew said.

The school spokesman said that it disciplines and counsels any perpetrators, "seek to help them learn from their mistakes and reconcile with the people they have hurt".

"In addition, anti-bullying messages are taught as part of the school’s Character and Citizenship Education curriculum, and emphasised during talks at school assemblies," the spokesman added.

Related topics

bullying schools MOE suicide cyber bullying

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