SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Education (MOE) has reiterated that it expects teachers to conduct themselves in a manner befitting the trust placed in them when interacting with students, following a series of sexual abuse cases in recent months.
“We continue to emphasise these high expectations to all educators regularly throughout their career – starting from the appointment and teacher training,” MOE deputy director-general of education (schools) and director of schools Liew Wei Li said in response to queries from CNA.
“School leaders also continually engage their staff on the Code of Professional Conduct for Educators.”
This comes after a 35-year-old male teacher was on Sep 3 jailed for six months for kissing a 14-year-old student twice on her lips.
In August, a 41-year-old male teacher was jailed for eight years after fathering a child with a 15-year-old student. July saw a 34-year-old male teacher jailed for 16 months for having an indecent relationship with his 15-year-old female student.
A 29-year-old female teacher was in June jailed for two years and nine months for sexually exploiting her 15-year-old male student, while a 36-year-old male teacher was in April jailed for six years and six months for committing sex acts and molesting his students.
“Despite our best efforts of selection, screening, training and collective commitment to our mission, there may be a handful of black sheep,” Ms Liew said.
“All staff have been reminded to practise peer vigilance so as to immediately report cases of wrongful practices or misconduct they come across.”
REPORTING OF ABUSE
Ms Liew said there are systems in place for students to report “unsafe encounters” to school management, adding that school counsellors are present to support them.
Students who have been abused can also approach a trusted adult, like a parent or another teacher, for support and to stop further abuse, said Ms Laika Jumabhoy, assistant manager at the Association of Women for Action and Research’s (AWARE) Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC).
Ms Liew said parents are encouraged to raise issues and feedback directly to school leaders or MOE officials, after which a “thorough and independent” investigation will be conducted.
“Disciplinary action will be taken if there is wrongdoing and a police report made if any criminal offence is revealed,” she added.
“It is through such processes that we are able to keep our students safe and maintain the integrity of our profession and system.”
Still, Ms Jumabhoy said it’s crucial for adults to believe children when they speak up about abuse, noting that some adults have responded with disbelief, judgment or resentment.
“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,” she added.
“They might dismiss children's disclosures as the child being confused, attention-seeking or misbehaving, especially as the children themselves might not clearly communicate exactly what has happened to them.
“So, we need more public education promoting honest, informed and non-judgmental understanding of the reality of sexual violence, especially in schools, institutions and organisations.”
READ: ‘They don’t deserve to take so much away from me’ – how survivors of child sexual abuse find hope and recovery, a commentary
This is especially as many victims are less willing to report incidents when the perpetrator is known to them, such as when he or she is a teacher, Ms Jumabhoy said. Her experience at SACC has shown that close to seven in 10 clients don’t report their experiences to authorities.
Ms Jumabhoy pointed to one case reported to SACC last year where a primary school teacher holding a senior position in the school had molested several of his students for about a year. One student eventually reported it to a trusted teacher, but was concerned about how it would impact the perpetrator’s family.
“She was afraid that the authorities and other teachers would question her,” Ms Jumabhoy said. “She was also worried about how her peers and other teachers would react.”
EFFECTS OF ABUSE
Ms Jumabhoy said children who have been sexually abused can have long-term issues with self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self-harm and difficulty building and maintaining trusting relationships.
She said victims might view themselves as shameful, unworthy and dirty; adults as not trustworthy; and the world as an unsafe and volatile place, adding that they typically experience a lot of guilt and self-blame.
In such cases seen by SACC, family members and acquaintances – including teachers, tuition teachers, coaches and religious teachers – are the most common type of perpetrator.
“The perpetrator is in a position of trust. He intentionally builds up an image of being an upstanding member of the community, which facilitates the process of sexual grooming and subsequent perpetration of abuse,” Ms Jumabhoy stated.
“This power has a strong hold on children, silencing them and making it difficult for them to speak up. Often they feel like no one will believe them as it is their word against the word of a person in a position of authority.”
READ: Trust placed on teachers shouldn't be 'trivialised': MOE on comments that sexually exploited boy was 'lucky'
When it comes to counselling victims, Ms Jumabhoy said it’s important to tell them it’s not their fault and that they can choose how they want to move forward. Statements like “it’s your experience, not anybody else’s” and "I’m here to support you” also help.
“We do not prescribe disclosure to all survivors,” she added, noting that whether they should speak up, when, how or with whom are all “very personal” decisions dependent on their situation.
“A survivor’s main responsibility is to themselves. They should prioritise their physical and emotional well-being, and do what they need to do for recovery.”
HOW STUDENTS CAN PROTECT THEMSELVES
In the bigger picture, Ms Liew said students are also taught to protect themselves.
Lower primary students learn how to differentiate between a “good and bad touch”, while upper primary and secondary school students learn to protect themselves from sexual advances and set clear physical boundaries in a relationship, she said.
“Our students also learn about treating others with respect and how they themselves should be similarly treated with respect,” she added.
Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Hospital, said boundaries between students and teachers should be observed and the relationship "should stay as such".
"Teachers should treat all their students alike," he said, noting that the onus to uphold boundaries lies with the teacher as the student is "always the vulnerable subject".
Ms Liew said MOE is committed to ensure that its schools are “safe places for students to learn and thrive”.