"I want to die."
"I don't deserve to live."
These words were written by Jessie Tan (not her real name), a 14-year-old dyslexic student earlier this year after she suffered vicious bullying at the hands of boys from her school in Singapore.
In January 2019, Jessie, who was then 12 going on 13, started her secondary school education.
Jessie's parents requested not to reveal the name of the school in order to protect their daughter.
Evidently, her learning disability quickly caught the attention of some. Within two months, the bullying started and the extent of it was appalling.
It began with taunts on anonymous messaging app Tellonym, calling her a "slut", "bitch", "idiot", and asking her to kill herself.
Then, it progressed to physical violence and verbal assaults. On one occasion, an object was thrown at her face, drawing blood
One bully hit Jessie's head and tried to kick her between her legs. Another spat out "dyslexic f**k!" three times when walking past her.
These incidents were detailed in a letter that Jessie penned and addressed to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, urging him to "improve the way schools and MOE respond to bullying and violence".
The letter was subsequently circulated on Facebook.
Lost confidence, feared going to school
Speaking to Mothership, Jessie's parents, Mr and Mrs Tan (not their real names), say that the bullying took a toll on Jessie's mental health.
The anonymous taunt in March which kick-started the bullying did not stop haunting her.
The school could not identify the culprit behind it and Jessie was constantly filled with doubt, wondering if one of the classmates sitting next to her was the very same person who wished for her death.
She could not sleep well, stopped eating in the school canteen, and eventually withdrew from her school friends. School was just not a safe space for her anymore.
"It really made her lose her confidence," says Mrs Tan. "She started to think she wasn't good, she was weird."
In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic brought some relief.
When schools in Singapore transitioned to Home-Based Learning in April, conditions improved for Jessie a little because she did not have to go to school and face her bullies.
But on May 21, the Tans were notified about the resumption of physical lessons. Jessie did not appear to react when she heard the news.
Four days later, however, she tried to take her own life.
"I just could not bear the thought of having to face my bullies....and not knowing who will attack me next," Jessie wrote in her letter to PM Lee.
"We cannot accept that we almost lost our child to bullying"
Mrs Tan's voice trembles as she recounts the May 25 incident.
It was late at night. Mr and Mrs Tan woke up when Jessie's older sister burst into her parents' bedroom, begging them to save Jessie.
Still groggy, the parents stumbled into their younger daughter's bedroom and found, to their horror, that their daughter had tried to overdose on Panadol pills.
They immediately whisked her off to a hospital, where she was warded for 12 days.
"We almost lost our daughter, so we were devastated," says Mr Tan, adding that it was particularly hard on his wife.
"We cannot accept that we almost lost our child to bullying. And inaction," Mrs Tan weeps.
"We are under no illusion that any school can guarantee a bully-free environment but there must be action to address it."
Parents: School tried to make it look like they overreacted
Alleged inaction by the school to stop the bullying is what grieves Mr and Mrs Tan.
If you have been reading until here, you might be wondering:
"What had the school done to protect Jessie?"
Not very much it seems.
When the bullying started in March 2019, Jessie and her parents reported the matter to her teacher who assured them repeatedly that she would inform the school and it would investigate the matter.
No action was taken throughout the year.
Jessie's teacher left the school at the end of 2019, and that was when the Tans received a bombshell: The school claimed that no reports were lodged by her teacher.
When Mr and Mrs Tan went to the school's Discipline Master after their daughter was physically assaulted, he repeatedly told them, on three separate occasions, that there wasn't an appropriate time to speak to the perpetrator.
The student's father was ill, he said at first.
Later, it was the exams.
When the parents approached him a third time, the Discipline Master said the student's father had passed away; it was not a good time to approach the boy.
What left the Tans even more incredulous was how the school brushed aside the assaults as "pranks" and "mischief" and made them feel like they were overreacting.
The couple met with the school’s representatives when Jessie was warded, to discuss how to make it safe for their daughter to return to school.
The couple were particularly worried because Jessie's bullying did not seem to be an isolated incident.
Mrs Tan let on that during the meeting, when they brought their worries to the school's Department Head, he allegedly said: "Kids come and go."
"As if he was saying there's no problem!" exclaims Mrs Tan. "He made it sound like the problem was with our daughter, that the school had no problem."
Transferring out, speaking up about bullying
Jessie may be dyslexic, but she has a voracious appetite for writing.
"She really loves writing," Mrs Tan's eyes light up as she goes on about a writing competition that her daughter took part in in primary school and won.
Writing then became a natural outlet for Jessie when she was in the hospital and undergoing therapy with a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
"I think it is therapeutic for her. It helps her organise her thoughts," says Mrs Tan. "She started saying that she wanted to speak up. She felt that it was really, really wrong that the school didn't protect her."
That desire led to her letter to PM Lee.
The letter prompted a response from the Ministry of Education, which claimed that the school in question had paid "serious attention to the concerns raised by you, and they sent a firm message to students that any form of bullying is not acceptable".
Today, Jessie has been transferred out of that "toxic environment" and is coping well in a different school. It is a decision that was supported by Jessie's psychologist, psychiatrist, and medical social worker.
She's doing better, but still no child should have to go through what she went through, says Mrs Tan.
"There must be change. Students must be able to trust the school and the teachers of the school."
Mothership has reached out to the school in question.
If you are facing difficulties, here are some organisations you can turn to for a listening ear:
National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health's Mobile Crisis Service: 6389-2222
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788
AWARE Women's Helpline: 1800-777-555 (10am - 6pm, Monday to Friday)
Top image via.