Kinderland redeploys pre-school principal, bars her from working with children after parents' uproar

Wong Shiying and Yong Li Xuan
The Straits Times
Aug 31, 2023

The principal of a Kinderland pre-school at the centre of a storm involving allegations of child abuse by a teacher has been removed from the post and barred from participating in activities relating to children.

Mr Seet Lee Kiang, general manager of Kinderland Singapore, told The Straits Times on Thursday that the principal, Ms Mahirah Yasid, had been redeployed to other roles in the company since Wednesday.

Some parents on Wednesday had called for Ms Mahirah to be fired and barred from working in the pre-school sector, after videos of a teacher allegedly manhandling pupils at the centre she ran began circulating on Monday.

Ms Mahirah had been with the centre since 2015.

The videos were taken secretly by another teacher.

Mr Seet, in the first interview with the media by Kinderland’s management after the videos were widely circulated online, said all parents with children at the branch have been invited to a dialogue there on Saturday at 10am.

He said he first learnt of the alleged incidents on Aug 17, the same day the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) contacted Kinderland over the matter. ECDA started investigations on Aug 10.

Mr Seet added that Kinderland’s management viewed the videos only on Monday, the same day they first surfaced online.

“Ms Mahirah saw the three videos in full at ECDA’s office when they started investigations. She then told headquarters verbally on Aug 17 that the videos were of a teacher force-feeding and smacking children,” he said.

Mr Seet said Kinderland launched a disciplinary inquiry the next day. The pre-school operator issued the teacher, 33-year-old Lin Min, a warning letter on Aug 22, based on its preliminary findings.

During the inquiry, she continued to work but was paired with another teacher in class, Mr Seet added.

Kinderland fired Lin on Monday after the inquiry was completed. On Wednesday, she was charged in court with ill-treating a child.

In response to parents who said Ms Mahirah had downplayed the alleged abuse incidents, Mr Seet told ST: “Under the circumstances and stress, her communication with parents may have been vague, but it was never her intention to downplay or cover up.”

In an interview with CNA, the teacher who took the videos and shared them with some parents said she had alerted Ms Mahirah twice about the way Lin had treated pupils.

But Mr Seet disputed this, denying that the whistle-blower told Ms Mahirah or Kinderland’s management about the matter.

He said: “The only time the whistle-blower approached the principal was when she submitted her resignation on July 4. There was no mention of the incidents in her exit interview, or any documentation that was submitted to us.”

Responding to online criticism about Kinderland banning staff from using personal devices during teaching hours, Mr Seet said it was not the company’s intention to restrict the use of personal cellphones to stop whistle-blowers.

He added: “In emergency cases, staff can use their mobile phones to film (an incident). It is not that they are not allowed to use their phones during office hours; it is just during lesson time. We want them to focus on the children.

“For updating parents, teachers should use authorised school devices to record photos or videos of children and upload them to the pre-school management app.”

Mr Seet said steps are being taken to protect Kinderland pupils from abuse, and the school is in the process of installing closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in all classrooms and children activity centres.

Priority, he added, will be given to the branch where the alleged abuse by Lin took place, and another branch in Choa Chu Kang where a 48-year-old teacher is under police investigation for voluntarily causing hurt against someone who is under 14.

The move is in line with ECDA’s plan to make CCTV cameras mandatory in all pre-schools by July 2024. This plan has been in the pipeline since 2022.

Mr Seet added that Kinderland will review its whistle-blowing channels to find ways to detect such cases more quickly. “Ultimately, safety is our top priority. We will never allow this to be compromised.”

When asked about Kinderland’s hiring processes, he stressed that potential hires go through rounds of interviews involving the human resources and centre operations departments, and Kinderland looks out for qualities such as passion, good character and love of children.

When asked what is considered acceptable punishment that can be meted out to rowdy children, Mr Seet said: “We do not punish children. It goes against Kinderland’s philosophy.

“Teachers are expected to calm the child, find out how he is feeling, counsel him and raise feedback to parents. The use of timeout is a last resort, and its duration depends on the child’s age – two minutes for a two-year-old, for example.”

Some parents, whose children were placed in the school where Lin worked, felt that Kinderland should do more to assure the parents.

One mother, who recently withdrew her child from the centre, acknowledged the school’s efforts to install CCTV cameras in all classrooms and activity centres.

“Kinderland should tell parents once this has been implemented, as it would give us the assurance that deterring (potential abuse cases) and ensuring students’ safety is important to them,” said the parent, who wanted to be known only as Ms S.

In the light of the alleged abuse, Ms S added that Kinderland could have been more proactive in engaging parents and answering their questions about the matter.

Another mother, who has two children at the school, said teachers should update parents on their children’s well-being in a timely manner, and parents should be given access to the pre-school’s CCTV cameras.

She is looking to pull the younger child out of the school, but will let the older one stay on. However, she is worried about the safety of the older child.

“Trust has been lost. Kinderland can salvage its poor reputation only by showing parents actions and proof,” she said.

ST is not naming the parents due to a gag order to protect the victim.

HOW EVENTS UNFOLDED

March 2020: Lin Min joins Kinderland.

June 27-30, 2023: A teacher, who in May 2023 joined the Kinderland pre-school where Lin Min works, films Lin’s alleged acts of abuse on the school’s children.

July 29: The teacher leaves Kinderland after resigning.

Aug 10: Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) begins investigating the alleged abuses.

Aug 17: ECDA contacts Kinderland for investigation. The school principal, Ms Mahirah Yasid, watches three alleged abuse videos taken by the teacher who had left in July, according to Kinderland Singapore general manager Seet Lee Kiang. Ms Mahirah informs the headquarters and a disciplinary inquiry is set up to look into Lin’s conduct.

Aug 17-18: Four employees from Lin’s workplace meet ECDA.

Aug 22: Lin receives a warning letter from Kinderland.

Aug 28: Videos of the alleged abuse emerge online. Mr Seet tells The Straits Times later that this is also when Kinderland’s management first watches the videos. The disciplinary inquiry is completed on the same day and Lin is dismissed.

Aug 29: Lin is arrested. Police later arrest another Kinderland teacher after a video showing alleged child abuse at Kinderland’s Sunshine Place branch in Choa Chu Kang begins spreading.

Aug 30: Lin is charged in court with ill-treating a child.

The Straits Times

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