MOE expects institutions to be “open and timely” in addressing allegations of sexual misconduct: Sun Xueling

Minister of State in the Ministry for Education (MOE) Sun Xueling on Tuesday (3 November) said that the MOE expects institutions to be open and timely in their communications in the course of addressing allegations of misconduct committed by staff and students.

In the meantime, institutions have to take into consideration the facts of the case, the need to ensure the safety of their communities and safeguard the well-being and privacy of victims and other members of the community who are directly affected as well as the need to ensure that police investigations are not impacted.

Ms Sun said this in response to the questions raised by Mountbatten SMC Member of Parliament (MP) Lim Biow Chuan, who asked whether autonomous universities can provide clear communications with their students when allegations of misconduct arise.

Mr Lim’s question came after a recent incident involving a lecturer from National University of Singapore (NUS), Dr Jeremy Fernando who was sacked by the university over complaints of “inappropriate behaviour” and breaching of standards of professionalism as a lecturer.

Speaking in Parliament, Ms Sun noted that when allegations of serious misconduct are made, the institutes of higher learning (IHLs) will immediately require the alleged offender to stay away from campus if that individual may pose any danger to the community.

Not only this, a “no-contact order” may also be imposed by the IHL if the case involved a student or staff from the same institution, which is to ensure that the alleged offender stays away from the party making the allegations.

She also mentioned that a police report is typically made for allegations of serious misconduct and where the alleged offender is proven and charged in court, adding that this will be a matter of public record.

“Separately, the IHLs also conduct their own internal investigation to determine if the alleged offender has breached their code of conduct. Those who do so are subject to the disciplinary sanctions including suspension or expulsion of student or dismissal of staff,” the Minister added.

Open discussion on campus should have “academic rigor and must be constructive”; students and staff expected to uphold professional codes of conduct in their interactions

Noting the member of public is displeased that the disclosure of NUS lecturer’s dismissal “was not timely”, Mr Lim then questioned the Minister about the “timeframe” when they say MOE expects the institutions to be open and timely in their communications with the students.

He highlighted that it is “justifiable” for a student ask for a timely disclosure because a student would like to know “whether the lecturer is under investigation and whether the lecturer is likely to be a predator”, when they are approaching the lecturer.

Responding to his question, Ms Sun said they agree that “communication is very important” and will ask the IHLs to do more on this front, while bearing in mind the context and specificities of the case.

“In the present case regarding this specific lecturer, I have shared that the IHL required the accused individual to stay away from campus and a no-contact order was swiftly made out. This was carried out and NUS had disclosed that in their media conference,” she noted.

“Let me be very clear. We do not condone instances of sexual misconduct, as well as sexual offences that happen on campus, and the MOE will work closely with the IHLs to protect our students,” she stressed.

Stressing that the IHLs are key public institutions, Ms Sun noted that IHLs are expected to “uphold high academic standards, professionalism, and also owe a duty of care to the students.”

“And that is why we have zero-tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct instances that happened in campus,” she added.

Ms Sun stressed that open discussions on campus about instances of sexual misconduct must be heeld constructively.

“Faculty members and students are expected to uphold professional codes of conduct in their interactions. So when there is a breach of those codes of conduct the punishments are swift. Students can be suspended, they can be dismissed from school, and the same goes for staff,” she said, noting that the academician in this case was dismissed very quickly.

Total of 172 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct reported by students and staff between 2015 and 2019

When being asked about the number of similar incidents in the past year, Ms Sun revealed that the IHLs handled a total of 172 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct by students and staff between 2015 and 2019.

“This translates to the incident rate of 0.12 sexual misconduct cases involving staff and student perpetrators per 1000 staff and student,” she added.

According to Ms Sun, the autonomous universities handled a total of 56 disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct committed by students from 2015 to 2017, which translates to the incident rate of around 0.21 sexual misconduct cases involving student perpetrators per 1000 student.

In 2018, the number of such cases dropped to 17 with the corresponding incident rate of 0.16 and in 2019, the number of cases fell to 14 with a corresponding incident rate of 0.13.

Sengkang GRC MP He Ting Ru asked the Minister whether there are any plans to conduct investigations into complaints of sexual violence and sexual misconduct in universities or institutions so as to “give students better confidence”.

Replying to Ms He’s question, Ms Sun noted that there are “two tracks” of investigations when allegations of sexual misconduct arise in the IHLs.

If there’s a need to investigate the offence, a disciplinary board which includes the students to provide their perspectives on the issue will be convened, she said.

“Separately from that, there is a serious criminal justice system and when there are concerns of a serious offence having occurred, then a police report is made and investigations are carried out by the police,” said Ms Sun.

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