Sara Duterte, vice president of the Philippines and daughter of former President Rodrigo Duterte, has ordered the country’s investigation bureau and her own office to launch probes into alleged sexual, verbal and emotional abuses endured by students at an elite state-run boarding school for artists.
This came amid calls for justice and accountability from rights activists, lawmakers, and social media users, following an exclusive report by VICE World News detailing allegations of systemic abuse at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA).
“Committed to protecting the welfare of all learners, the Department of Education has sought the immediate assistance of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to investigate the reports of emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse allegations in the Philippine High School for the Arts,” the department said in a statement on Tuesday.
Duterte, also the country’s education secretary, had sent the NBI—the Philippines’ equivalent of the FBI—a letter requesting a “comprehensive report on the issue as soon as possible.” She also ordered her department’s child protection and rights in education units to open a separate probe.
The justice department, which oversees the NBI, told reporters later on Tuesday it would cooperate with Duterte.
On Wednesday, Senator Risa Hontiveros, who authored a law protecting against sexual abuse in public places including schools, directed a Senate committee to open yet another separate investigation. It could see abuse survivors, school administrators, and concerned officials gathered in televised hearings with senators within weeks. She cited allegations mentioned in the VICE World News report.
“If the accounts are accurate, the repeated failure of PHSA administration to address the violence and abuses is a blatant violation of the Safe Spaces Act and a flagrant disregard of the interests of PHSA students—interests they are duty-bound to protect and promote as persons reposed with special parental authority,” Hontiveros said in a statement on Wednesday, referring to the law she authored.
Meanwhile, PHSA, which earlier downplayed the allegations, has told the education department it is examining “current and prior information on the matter,” the department also said in Tuesday’s statement. Both the education department and PHSA are “reviewing the school’s existing policies and strengthening internal mechanisms” to ensure the safety of students, it continued.
The timing of these investigations is crucial—PHSA students are set to return to campus next month, after more than two years of distance learning owing to the pandemic, and they have ramped up calls for the school to guarantee their safety.
The students have for months been demanding that the faculty ensure their safety on campus and take action on multiple allegations of sexual abuse committed by teachers and other staff members on students. However, the faculty has had a history of dismissing abuse complaints as hearsay, and has even promoted an alleged abuser to a higher staff position, several students said in the VICE World News report.
The investigation found that the faculty’s dismissiveness and insistence on stringent bureaucratic procedures in filing abuse complaints have discouraged survivors from coming forward, when the faculty could by law initiate action as soon as it hears of a suspected threat or incident of abuse.
The education department echoed PHSA’s position in its Tuesday statement, saying survivors are “encouraged” to submit concerns and complaints to the school’s investigation committee “for proper and further actions.”
But the agency also vowed “strong leadership” from Duterte, who won the vice presidential race in May’s general election with a rare majority vote, and who was appointed by the new president Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr as education secretary earlier this month.
“The Department would like to reiterate that the agency does not tolerate abuses in any form,” the statement read.
Child rights advocates have been urging Duterte to look into the alleged abuses at PHSA. The NGO coalition Child Rights Network on July 6 called on the government to enforce laws protecting children, and to “stop the practice of coddling reported abusers and sexual offenders, as this culture of violent treatment of PHSA students reveals how byzantine and feudal relations between mentors and mentees has become.”
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This story has been updated to include news of Senator Risa Hontiveros’ investigation on July 13. On July 15, parties in the House of Representatives advocating for women, young people, and education rights also announced a separate investigation into alleged abuses at the PHSA.