UWC student, 17, dies on unchaperoned school trip to Cambodia, parents urge review of guidelines
The death of a 17-year-old international school student during a school trip to Cambodia has sparked concern among several parents who want answers and a review of guidelines on overseas excursions.
Kaira Karmakar, an Indian national who was studying at United World College of South-east Asia (UWCSEA) in Dover Road, died in a road accident on June 1 while on a school trip to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
She was with a group of classmates, and there were no teachers or adult representatives accompanying them. UWCSEA was notified at 3.07am the same day. The school declined to say how many students were part of the group.
UWCSEA Dover head Patrick Hurworth, in an e-mail to parents on June 1, informed them that she had died while in Cambodia for the school’s project week.
The e-mail, seen by The Straits Times, said students have the option of going on an overseas field trip for project week as part of the grade 11 curriculum, and that it is “designed to support readiness for independent life” after graduation.
UWCSEA, a top international school with campuses all over the world, has two in Singapore – in Dover Road and Tampines. Grade 11 is similar to the first year in junior college in Singapore.
UWCSEA head of college Nick Alchin, in an e-mail on June 7, said students would break into small groups of four to six and spend up to six months planning their trips. The process is supervised by a teacher who does not go on the trip, he added.
Mr Alchin said: “It is different to all other outdoor education trips because the structure is to use a period of detailed supervised planning to support student travel without an accompanying UWCSEA adult.”
One student in each group is given mandatory first-aid training, and students have access to a 24-hour emergency hotline – provided by security service International SOS – and a list of local contacts and the closest hospitals, he added.
In his e-mail, Mr Alchin said the school is planning to have an external investigation done on the accident as well as project week. The final report, he added, will be submitted to the audit and risk committee of the school’s board of governors – the body responsible for reviewing school processes.
However, one parent said it has been nearly three months and there has been no update on the incident since the June 7 e-mail from Mr Alchin.
The parent, who asked not to be identified, said: “The school has not informed the parents of the outcome of the investigation and obviously expects that this has been forgotten throughout the summer holidays.
“As a parent, I feel voiceless and cornered.”
The parent also asked why the school would allow students to go on an overseas trip without an adult.
Said the parent: “The school’s justification that this trip was meant to foster independence in our children is nothing short of a poor excuse...
“The tragedy that unfolded as this young lady died in a road accident was entirely preventable. The school should have been aware that teenagers are prone to testing boundaries.”
UWCSEA declined to answer queries on the accident or the review of project week guidelines.
It did, however, celebrate Kaira’s life in a joint statement with the Karmakar family.
The statement said: “Kaira was exceptional, an outstanding student who had already achieved so much in her life and who shared her blessings freely. UWCSEA has named a scholarship in Kaira’s honour, so that a young student of great promise and potential can experience an education at the school she loved.”
According to the UWC website, the school has also set up an endowment in Kaira’s name – in a tie-up with the Karmakar family, and the fund will help support UWCSEA scholarships, among other things.
On social media platform TikTok, Kaira’s friends paid tribute to her. One person left a comment on the last post put up by Kaira. It said: “Rest in peace gorgeous.”
In 2023, more than 300 students from the Dover campus and nearly 240 students from the East campus opted to travel abroad for project week, while about 80 students across both campuses chose to remain in Singapore.
In a blog post on the UWCSEA perspectives website, faculty members said the week-long sojourn was the “highlight of high school” and the means by which students fulfil the International Baccalaureate diploma’s “creativity, action and service” requirement – in effect, a graduation prerequisite”.
“It is not a holiday,” it added.
Students must plan either creative, active or service-oriented itineraries, according to another blog post on the UWCSEA portal.
But Kaira’s former classmate, a grade 12 student who wanted to be known only as Z, said: “It’s an escape from school. Although it’s not intended as a holiday, it’s often treated as one.”
Z also confirmed that the students go solo on these overseas trips, “with no adult supervision”.
Partying is common and is a risk the school is well aware of, Z added.
“The school talks about it a lot in the planning stages and warn us of the consequences, but at the end of the day it’s up to students and their maturity and moral compass to make decisions.
“Sometimes that includes breaking rules.”
When asked if future overseas trips should have chaperons, Z disagreed, saying it would “change the whole vibe and point of it”.
Z said: “You certainly have an amazing opportunity, and going forward, this will serve as a good example for students not to drink or whatever.
“If done well, you have a great time with friends and achieve something, as well as learn skills along the way.”
Those keen on contributing to Kaira’s memorial endowment can do so at https://www.uwcsea.edu.sg/support-us/memorial-endowment-contribution