Get tough on sex predators in schools: MP Tin Pei Ling

Tin Pei Ling suggests stiffer penalties as a deterrent as Aware reveals cases involving educators rose from two in 2016 to six last year

As more cases of educators sexually abusing children come to light, an MP has called for tougher penalties to deter such predators.

"My sense is that the penalty must match the severity of the crime and serve as a deterrent," said MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling.

"The problem is that such cases involve children, so we cannot name and shame the perpetrator," she added.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) said the number of cases of educators, including private tutors and co-curricular activity coaches, preying on children has risen in the last three years.

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Ms Laika Jumabhoy, the assistant manager of Aware's Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC), told The New Paper there were two such cases in 2016, five in 2017 and six last year.

While noting that a rise in the cases may just reflect greater awareness of the crime and avenues for help, she stressed that globally sexual crimes are substantially under-reported.

"Based on our experience with SACC, close to seven in 10 clients do not report their experiences to the authorities.

"Many survivors are less willing to report when the perpetrator is known to them," she said.

When contacted, the Ministry of Education declined to reveal the number of cases of sexual abuse of students by educators in schools.

As to whether it would review situations where educators are alone with a child, MOE said it expected all educators to conduct themselves in a manner that upholds the integrity of the profession and the trust placed in them.

Its spokesman said: "MOE's commitment is to ensure that our schools are safe places for students to learn and thrive."

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Associate Professor Jason Tan, 56, of the National Institute of Education, Department of Policy and Leadership Studies, said it is hard for MOE to set overly strict rules on a teacher's interaction with a child.

He said: "Most teachers, parents and students now interact over social media or messaging.

"To restrict a teacher's ability to have confidential conversations with the child will compromise their ability to do their job well and provide the child with the necessary care and support."

Prof Tan, who said he has been keeping track of educator abuse cases for about 20 years, added: "Every time such an incident occurs, the ministry will issue a standard press release.

"That is because it knows, on a practical level, it can't put a stop to such behaviour. It can only issue guidelines and warnings."

The MOE spokesman said lower primary pupils are taught how to differentiate between a good and bad touch.

In upper primary, they learn to protect themselves from sexual advances and set clear physical boundaries in a relationship.

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The spokesman added: "We will not hesitate to take strong disciplinary action against those who fall short of the standards expected, including dismissal from service.

"We will also make a police report if any criminal offence is revealed."

But Ms Jumabhoy said that in some cases handled by Aware, some schools were proactive in handling the problem while others were unsure of how to move forward.

"It is important for them to consult other agencies and experts on safety planning," she added.

When TNP spoke to 10 parents about the issue, most were concerned about predatory educators, but some were reluctant to discuss the topic.

Madam Radhivyah Devi, a 23-year-old chef and mother of three aged five months to four years, said: "We put our children in school because we trust the teachers. But I feel unsafe now. If this happens in my kids' schools, I won't hesitate to change schools."

A victim can suffer adverse psychological damage that can be permanent, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist in private practice.

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He said: "The abuse can result in low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders and even self-harm and suicidal behaviours."

Ms Laika Jumabhoy, assistant manager of the Sexual Assault Care Centre at the Association of Women for Action and Research, said the sexual crime would often be shrouded in secrecy and shame, and child victims would typically experience guilt and self-blame.

She said: "They may view themselves as shameful, unworthy and dirty and the world as an unsafe and volatile place.

"They may perceive that others, particularly adults, are not trustworthy.

"Their parents or guardians may struggle to accept that their child is a survivor of sexual abuse.

"Some may blame themselves for not being able to protect their child.

"They may also be at a loss as to what do next, both practically and emotionally, for the child."

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Associate Professor Jason Tan of the National Institute of Education (NIE), Department of Policy and Leadership Studies, said such cases would also erode the trust that people have in schools and the teachers.

He said: "It is not good for public trust, and parents having to warn their children against their trusted teachers, who are supposed to be above suspicion, will affect their ability to learn well.

"This lack of trust will also hinder good teachers from doing their work well."

SPLIT PARENTS

Parents contacted by The New Paper were split on how pressing this issue is.

A mother in her 40s, whose daughter is in secondary school, said that while she worries about the girl being alone with male teachers, she wanted to avoid jumping to conclusions.

She said: "I do tell my children to be careful, but I also want them to be able to get as much as they can from their teachers and school."

A 30-year-old pre-school teacher and mother-of-two who wanted to be known only as Jazlyn felt children must be warned about unwanted attention from their teachers.

She said: "This (sexual abuse) may happen in places where we least expect it.

"I believe that we, as parents, must create awareness for our children, and sex education should start as early as five years old."

A psychology lecturer in a polytechnic urged victims to tell other members of the community if they need support.

She said: "We teach our students to reach out to trusted adults when incidents happen in schools. Yet, it could be these very adults who may abuse their trust.

"But we are a collectivist society and students have access to parents, siblings, peers and other authority figures."

HELPLINES
  • Tinkle Friend (for primary school children): 1800-274-4788 (weekdays, 2.30 to 5pm)
  • Aware Sexual Assault Care Centre: 6779-0282 (weekdays, 10am to 10pm)

You can also talk to child protection specialist centres such as Heart@Fei Yue, Safe Space and Big Love

This article was first published in The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.