by Brenda Tan
REMEMBER the case of the ex-Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) student who tried to sue the school for not protecting her from bullies? You might have missed the article in ST about the High Court striking out her claim last week.
Justice George Wei found that while schools have a legal duty to provide a safe environment for their students, it was “plain and obvious” that schools are not duty bound to intervene in the kind of bullying which the student specified: name-calling and being ostracised.
As a parent and a former teacher, I would have to agree with Judge Wei on his ruling.
Reading the teenager’s story in the earlier report left me bewildered – how would anyone even consider that Ms Cheryl Tan had a case against her school?
Unlike the Shuqun Secondary School bullying incident which happened a few months back, where two boys were captured on video being physically hit on the head several times by a bully, the verbal criticism suffered by Ms Tan from her peers, accusing her of being “selfish” and “greedy”, and seeking “glam and glory” in her Co-Curricular Activity when she was in Secondary 3, sounds mild in comparison. In fact, it doesn’t sound any worse than my Primary 3 daughter complaining to me that her friends are “bullies” because they don’t want to play with her during recess.
I am not trying to belittle the effects constant verbal criticism and ostracism can have on a child’s self-esteem by comparing what Ms Tan went through with the complaints my daughter makes about her schoolmates, but it is troubling to note that Ms Tan and her family felt that they could actually make RGS pay for Ms Tan’s S$220,000 overseas education, when they were the ones who opted to leave the school and head to England for Ms Tan to continue her studies.
Judge Wei did not dispute that the school had a duty of care for its students, but that “a law that requires schools to intervene in every episode of unhappiness between their students… would impose a heavy burden on the school and its teachers.”
It is worth noting that while the school can create the best positive environment of learning via a culture of respect, collaboration, and acceptance, there will always be occasions in school that create unhappiness for our kids, simply because a school is a place of learning.
At one level, our children attend school to learn a specific set of content/knowledge – literacy, numeracy, and basic facts about the world. However, there is an implicit understanding that schools also teach students how to relate to one another in a social setting, via a set of culturally acceptable behavioural guidelines and principles.
So schools try to reinforce these guidelines and principles by iterating their school values at assemblies, highlighting good behaviour as well as admonishing and counselling those who fall short of its standards.
It is too much to expect that schools will always be a ‘happy place’ for our children, simply because the interactions of our children in our high-pressured and competitive education system is bound to create vulnerability and unhappiness at some point in their learning journey.
I recall that when my eldest son was in Secondary 1, he and a few classmates were assigned a group project during the school vacation. The load fell on him as his classmates had intensive sports training classes. He ended up building a 3D model of a volcano himself and even doing the accompanying write-ups. He didn’t mind it; he had always loved the subject and had done well in it.
So it was a surprise when he scored dismally for subject. At the Meet the Staff session, we found out that the group project’s grades made up a large part of the subject’s progressive score – and he had done very badly in it.
It turned out that because of my son’s aptitude in the subject, his teacher had put two of the weaker classmates into his group in the hope that they might benefit from peer work with him. But because the marking rubrics of the group project included points given for confidential peer evaluations, his team-mates had made a pact to mark down my son’s scores and give each other much higher scores instead. So while the rest passed the group project with flying colours, my son failed to make the grade.
You might accuse me of batting for my son. But the fact is we had witnessed the amount of work he put in it. His teacher, knowing his past grades, recognised the discrepancy in the scores and intervened on my son’s behalf. His grade was moderated. His team mates were counselled for their actions. But my son was unhappy over the issue for some time.
Should I have then sued the school for my son’s unhappiness and distress? After all, at some level, I could even say that my son was bullied by his team-mates.
But how would my son benefit if I sued the school for neglecting to detect the issue in the first place? We may perhaps feel that some level of ‘justice’ has to be meted out and have someone ‘pay’ for my son’s unhappiness and distress but is this true justice? Or is this merely revenge for my son being targeted by his peers?
Besides, what exactly would I be teaching my son about how to deal with conflicts, whether he’s the target or the bystander, if my mode of operation is to seek restitution by going straight to the courts (or the police, or the Ministry of Education, for that matter)?
Would he learn to forgive and move on without having to constantly seek some sort of legal redress? Or would it be better if he recognised that it was his own personal response that makes the difference between his being happy or unhappy at any situation?
Truthfully, it is during the unhappy times that our children encounter, when resilience is best taught. These lessons are memorable, not only because heightened emotions are involved, but also because these are practical lessons in actually overcoming the conflict. In learning to deal with such a situation – why we feel the way we do, seeking solutions where possible, and learning to let go where there are no clear solutions – these guiding principles are of far greater value for our children in the long-run to live well, than getting top grades at exams.
Such a philosophy raises adults who aren’t afraid of failures and trusting in others. Such an adult is definitely more likely to see the best in others, be it more forgiving of failures – both their own and others’, or be it someone who can be a positive force in his or her environment.
Besides, if schools are liable every time our kids are unhappy with their peers, we end up with poorer schools – not just because of schools’ financial loss, but because our children will never learn to be better people.
Featured image from Raffle Girls’ School Facebook page.
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