MANILA, Philippines – The students of the country’s premier science high school decided they had had enough.
Outraged by an initial board decision to let 6 male students graduate despite sharing nude photos of their fellow female schoolmates online, students of the Philippine Science High School (PSHS) knew well enough they had to move if any change was to follow.
A week before graduation, they occupied a concrete grandstand where they stood against harassment of their peers and protested its acceptance by the institution’s highest officials.
At least 15 female students from the graduating batch of PSHS were known to have had their photos shared on a Google drive online without their consent. Out on the school field, students who used their lunchtime to stage a protest rally of sorts turned to one another for comfort.
Together they wept and yelled for justice.
“It took me months to muster up the courage because I know that they’re powerful and I’m not strong enough,” a victim said in her testimony read by another student. “But now I’m writing this statement to tell you that what they [boys] did was unfair and inexcusable.”
Signs of red and black letters reading “Time’s Up,” “Believe women,” and “Protect your students” were held in the crowd that included parents, concerned faculty, and alumni who represented decades of graduates from the elite school.
By the end of that afterrnoon, the board was thrust under the media spotlight as students pressured them to revisit their decision.
And in the span of a week – the school board revised their decision, barring the 6 male students from marching but allowing 3 to receive diplomas.
Now, students say this is just the beginning.
Started with whispers
The events that led to the movement students called BOTtled Up – BOT stands for board of trustees – can be traced to the quiet halls of the PSHS main campus.
Before a full-fledged probe was launched, word of a Google drive containing lewd photos and videos of female students had already been spreading in whispered stories long before it reached the PSHS board of trustees in the summer of 2019.
Rumors about the photos and videos filled the corridors long enough for them to become an open secret among students for years.
By accounts of students that Rappler spoke to, the drive was a storied topic as far back as 3 years ago. Sometimes shared intimately among students who were in relationships, the photos and videos found their way online without the knowledge of many of the girls.
Boys who wanted access to the drive needed to contribute a photo or video to acquire more. Once inside the group, students told Rappler, some boys even traded these among each another.
All that changed in December 2018, when one girl whose photos were on the drive learned about it and filed a case with the school’s disciplinary office.
In the months that followed, what were just rumors became for real. The school’s disciplinary office launched a full investigation into the matter.
Inquiries by the school’s discipline officials shook the quiet halls as some 40 students were called on to respond to the investigation. School officials called on everyone who was mentioned after interviews with the victims and the suspects were completed.
It was at that point when Parent-Teacher Council President (PTC), Susanne Fernandez, said the group decided to sponsor sexual harassment forums at the school.
As PTC head, Fernandez aided in the investigation. And as a mother and lawyer, Fernandez became deeply involved in the case.
“I did not tell the PTC [details of the case] when we had the forum. [But I said to them] If you’re going to sponsor a forum, that means there are current issues [happening],” Fernandez told Rappler.
Response among students was swift.
“After that forum, the students heard what their rights are, what’s legal and what’s illegal. Nagulat kami na yung (We were surprised the) response was so good. They cannot tolerate anymore the abuses of the boys so after that forum…more girls went to the DO [disciplinary office] to tell their stories,” she said.
Like their children, Fernandez said parents were also affected. “Ang daming nag-respond (So many responded). Even the parents, may umiiyak pa na (some were even crying), saying my daughter has suffered from this, my son [too],” she said.
By March 2019, the school’s disciplinary committee finished its report and forwarded it to the management committee for further action. The management committee recommended they be barred from graduation and given only certificates of completion, which would allow them to move on to college but not as a PSHS scholar.
But what felt like change turned out to be a huge disappointment for the students.
They were practicing for their graduation rites when discovered the board of trustees had decided to allow all 228 students in their batch to march.
“These are the most powerful people in this whole system and they sort of took a blind eye and lowered the offenses,” Julliane Negre, the batch’s representative, told Rappler in an interview.
“To be quite frank, it was like my heart dropped,” Julliane said. “It was painful.”
Mattie Balagat whose friends were also among those victimized said, “I couldn’t stomach how several girls I knew would be living with the trauma of being violated their whole lives, while these guys would…continue to live almost as if they had done nothing wrong.”
Dismayed with the prospect of the boys going scot-free, concerned students, who closely followed the investigation and whose friends were victimized, grouped together.
The victims and perpetrators directly involved in the case had remained mostly invisible to the public, but students close to them who witnessed their pain, sought to speak out and help protect them. Emboldened by hurt and anger, they channeled emotion into action.
Most of these kids were girls who were outraged, Julliane said. “Not necessarily victims but us girls, we sympathize. They were talking about it and keeping each other updated about what’s happening.”
Charisse Reganion, one of the girls who was part of the concerned group, said she and her friends got together when they heard news of the decision that favored the 6 boys. The batch council, which Julliane headed, later on decided to support their group.
“We were scared of the outcome of that we wouldn’t want because we just want justice, especially since we know the victims personally. We wanted to take action…because well, you can’t really rely on everyone to make the right decision and have good judgment,” Charisse said.
With little room for error, the students were exact and calculating in their planning. Every action was measured, the intention behind each was clear.
Together, the kids drafted a plan of action that involved writing official statements, calling on media, staging rallies, and keeping the conversation alive on campus and online. They granted interviews, and followed up with school officials up until the eve of their graduation on Wednesday, May 29.
In creating the movement, the kids faced difficult questions and together, they tried to find answers.
Students were forced to make tough calls like deciding how to treat those they were close to when they had done something wrong, navigating how far they should go to protect friends, and figuring out how to forgive friends who hurt them.
“We wanted to make sure the movement was focused. We didn’t want to hurt anyone – the perpetrators or the victims because that would just discredit the cause,” Julliane said.
“Forgiving a person is one thing, holding them accountable is another. We don’t just do these things to seek justice for the victims, our dear friends, but we do it because the perpetrators need to learn,” she added.
In drumming up support, parents rallied behind them. Alumni, some of whom graduated from the school’s first batch nearly 50 years ago in 1969, came out to support the students too.
Fernandez said she always remembered what students would tell her and other parents during the crucial week when the movement took off. “That there is no justice. That the BOT was only concerned with how the school will look. That they did not look at the victims.”
“That’s why we’re here,” she added. “We don’t want them to feel that they’re alone in this fight because we will fight alongside them.”
Up to the last minute
On the eve of their graduation, students refused to give up with no final word on their graduation announced by the board.
With the entire batch in school for an excellence toast where students would be recognized for completing the rigorous 6-year program, students wanted to stage a lightning rally in a bid to urge the board to release their decision.
The rally didn’t take place but students continued to ask teachers and parents for updates. Fernandez, who had taken a leave from work by then, said she didn’t mind the many questions.
“I’m more concerned with the silence. I would rather that the kids talk and try to help kaysa ‘yung (rather than) they don’t. Mas mahirap ‘yun (That’s harder),” Fernandez said.
“When you’re so involved, hindi ka makatulog (you can’t sleep), you cannot blink. If you stop, I was worried that what people were saying, that let it die…I don’t want that. I don’t want it to die because our graduation is near,” she added.
While there was no mention of it while the kids were in school, at close to midnight of graduation day, school officials said the 6 would no longer march but that 3 would still receive diplomas.
The next morning, there would be barely any mention of the case or the 6 boys during the graduation rites. Save for a brief mention of the movement, the students carried on with the nearly 4-hour ceremony focused on one another and their hard-earned achievements.
Students said they were not satisfied with the board’s final decision but decided not to make it dampen their graduation, Julianne said.
“We won’t even take our anger as their triumph against us.”
Heal for now, then move again
A week after students officially left school, what comes next?
Now outside the confines of the campus, they vowed their movement would continue to work towards changing campus culture and attitudes toward sexual harrassment.
“Now we plan to turn our movement into something bigger that can help all the victims of sexual harassment. I think the most immediate action to take is connecting victims with experts on the case [for] maybe the emotional and mental support they need,” Julliane said.
School officials Rappler spoke to said the investigation is still ongoing for students involved who were not part of the graduating class.
For this, alumni announced they would step in to respond to the needs of the school community and ensure the students involved remained safe while demanding accountability.
“Now more than ever, the Alumni Board recognizes the need to act as #OnePisay for the betterment of our beloved alma matter,” they said in a statement.
The week’s events prompted Science and Technology Secretary and PSHS ex-officio chairman Fortunato de la Peña to announce a shift in the way technology use will be taught in the premier science high school. De la Peña said a more immediate concern was how the board and its members would tackle how to teach students “responsible use of technology.”
“After all, the trustees are representing agencies and sectors dealing with young people whom we hope to mould as leaders…but not at the expense of good moral character, ethical behavior, and respect for others,” he said.
For parents, Fernandez said they now looked to help kids heal.
“I was thinking we start healing….I hope the parents try to understand their kids better, talk to them more with everything,” she said.
Students from the graduating class will be off to college. But as they leave to take on careers in molecular biology, environmental science, or chemical engineering, each vowed to continue the fight.
“The movement started something. Though it did not yield the exact results we had hoped for, it made a huge impact on other people….I mean, I see my friends fighting and being brave and that not only encourages me but also reassures me,” Julliane said.
“There is some hope, and I see that in these brave people.” – Rappler.com