This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
MANILA, Philippines — Tucked away in an idyllic enclave on Mount Makiling, a two-hour drive south of the capital Manila, is the Philippine High School for the Arts—an elite state-run boarding school that provides highly-coveted scholarships to the crème de la crème of the country’s young artists.
Nothing short of a mountain hideaway, the campus consists of quaintly designed halls and dormitories surrounded by lush rainforest and often shrouded in mist due to its high altitude. The setting affords the inspiration and solitude the school’s founders believed to be ideal for arts education, and the PHSA has indeed produced some of the Philippines’ finest writers, performers, musicians, and visual artists since it opened in 1977.
But with this exclusivity and seclusion comes a legacy of abuse and secrecy.
Joshua Serafin was 12 years old when he first came to the PHSA in June 2009, thrilled at having passed the grueling auditions for the school’s theater arts program—a shot at fulfilling his dream of becoming an artist.
“PHSA is a way for a lot of people out of poverty. It’s an entry point,” he told VICE World News. “I didn’t come from a privileged place; I came from the province hoping for debt-free education, allowances—high hopes for a better future.”
On his own away from home for the first time, Serafin reveled in the company of other kids who were kindred spirits. It was a lot of fun, until it wasn’t.
“On my fifth month there, I was sexually harassed by a senior,” Serafin said.
An older student bunked with Serafin at their dormitory one night that October in 2009. He was awakened by his abuser touching his genitals, and pulling his hand to touch the abuser’s genitals. “I was afraid and didn’t know what to do, so I pretended to sleep. I was shaking,” Serafin said.
But it wasn’t the last time he would be abused while at the PHSA. Serafin was 16 and in his senior year when a teacher started molesting him. His personal circumstances kept him in contact with this teacher until he was 18, and the abuse continued until then. “The molestation involved attempts at sexual intercourse,” said Serafin, who declined to identify this teacher for fear of backlash.
Serafin’s experience, though extreme, is not unique. Over the last seven months, a growing number of current and former students have called on PHSA administrators to investigate what they call a “culture of abuse” at the school that has traumatized generations of students. The sudden death last November of a teacher with a then-unknown history of abuse triggered his victims to finally talk about their experiences on social media, emboldening other students to also share their experiences of abuse—sexual, verbal and emotional—from other teachers, staff and students at the school.
Now, PHSA students past and present are demanding accountability from the school, including a proper investigation of the alleged abuses to punish the culprits and to inform new policies to guarantee the safety of students.
VICE World News spoke to more than a dozen former and current PHSA students and faculty members who described a disturbing environment and culture that enabled abuse, in which there were no clear boundaries between adult staff and students. Teachers often hung out and slept in students’ dormitories, for example, with hardly any supervision or accountability from the school administrators. It’s a bohemian community—freewheeling, as some former students put it—except that the members are children entrusted to teachers, staff and administrators of a prestigious and isolated government-run boarding school.
The students also spoke to VICE World News of a strong system of seniority and hierarchy in which older students lorded over younger ones, and teachers often treated students harshly, under the pretext of preparation for the cutthroat arts industry. Students assumed that putting up with their superiors’ whims was part of their education, and this thinking made them vulnerable to predators.
“What is apparent within the school is that there is a culture of abuse that I learned from my seniors, mainly because it was normalized,” said Serafin, now 26 and based in Brussels, Belgium working as a performing artist.
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Reports of different kinds of abuse have reached the faculty over the years, students said, but complaints were often brushed off as hearsay. The school requires a bureaucratic process of documentation and notarization before investigating abuse allegations, VICE World News learned from interviews with the current school heads and through documents it obtained involving abuse complaints. Students and other PHSA sources said this has discouraged abuse survivors from officially complaining to the school.
Alarmed by reports of abuse, students in January wrote their administrators a letter, signed by 89 current students and 79 alumni, demanding the school leadership investigate alleged abuses and ensure “safe spaces” when they resume physical classes post-lockdown in August. They said they conducted a survey among a quarter of the school’s 210 current students and found that half of them knew someone who experienced sexual abuse at the PHSA.
“We go in blindly, not knowing that this free education comes at a price, unaware of the culture that thrives in PHSA—one that perpetuates abuse, fostered by silencing and neglect,” the students wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by VICE World News.
“A culture of abuse has been embedded in the community, and those who dare to speak up are silenced and their allegations dismissed.”
A well-placed source within the PHSA, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of backlash from the school leadership, said the school has consistently downplayed and ignored numerous allegations, which continues to this day.
“Emotional abuse, sexual harassment and violations of physical boundaries have been normalized in the school. Adults [in the faculty] do not seem to find anything wrong with these acts,” the source told VICE World News.
“A culture of abuse has been embedded in the community, and those who dare to speak up are silenced and their allegations dismissed.”
Jerom Canlas, a 22-year-old actor and filmmaker, was just 11 years old when he started studying theater arts at the PHSA in 2011. About two years in, at age 13, he started attending rehearsals at a teacher’s house in Metro Manila, some 70 kilometers away from the campus in Los Baños city, Laguna province.
VICE World News decided not to identify this teacher—who was a PHSA alumnus—as he is now deceased and can no longer address these allegations. It was his death in November that set off a reckoning among students about the abuses they endured while at the school.
Students said this teacher would hold rehearsals at his house when his teaching schedule conflicted with his professional theater work, and during weekends when the school was technically closed. He allegedly had students sleep over when rehearsals ended too late for them to commute back to the boarding school.
According to Canlas, when he had to stay with the teacher overnight—many times during his time at the PHSA—the teacher would lay a mattress on the floor for him and sleep beside him. Often, the teacher put an arm around Canlas and, sometimes, slipped a hand under his shirt to touch his torso. Canlas would then put a pillow between his legs to prevent the teacher from touching his groin.
“It hadn’t occurred to me at that time that I was abused by this person when I was a minor, because I looked up to this person so much,” Canlas said. Shame, the fear of how the teacher would react if he resisted, and a sense of indebtedness to this “mentor” all prevented him from sounding the alarm, and so the abuse continued. He didn’t talk about what happened during these sleepovers to anyone except a few close friends.
When this teacher died, Canlas felt he had to break his silence. He wrote about his experience in a Facebook post, which prompted other students to confide with him their own experiences of abuse during their time at the PHSA. He learned that at least a dozen of his schoolmates were also molested by the same teacher, some enduring far worse abuse than Canlas, but were too afraid to come forward—except one.
Around 2018, based on interviews and screenshots of messages between students seen by VICE World News, school authorities handled the case of a male student who accused the same teacher of molesting him. VICE World News spoke briefly to this student, now 19 years old and in college, who declined to be identified due to the trauma from his ordeal. He declined to get into detail but confirmed that he filed an official complaint against the teacher. He said the entire incident had left him depressed and wanting to “just get kicked out” of the school.
Canlas, who has led efforts among alumni to reexamine instances of abuse at the PHSA, said the teacher had turned the student’s accusation on its head. “No one took the boy seriously because [the teacher] made it appear it was consensual,” Canlas said. “The boy must’ve been 14 or 15 at the time, so he was a minor.”
Canlas said the incident revealed a problematic way of thinking that was prevalent in the school—that consensual sexual activity between a student and a teacher was somehow permissible.
“Whether or not it was consensual, the fact was these adults knew there’d been an incident and they should’ve done something because it was wrong either way,” Canlas said. “The child complained. He did the brave thing. They should’ve been able to do something.”
“Wow, I just realized now that, shit, no one was really looking out for us.”
Instead, the student ended up so humiliated that he retracted the case and left the school without finishing his course—foregoing his hard-earned scholarship.
“These supervisors are still there [at the school], and they’re not saying anything about the issue,” Canlas said. “That’s what pains me the most. I thought they didn’t know about it but it turns out, they’ve known it all along, all this time.”
Canlas said it just recently dawned on him how lax the school had been to allow him and his schoolmates to rehearse and stay at the teacher’s house. “Wow, I just realized now that, shit, no one was really looking out for us.”
The current school director, Josue Greg Zuniega, and his deputy, Ronaldo Abuan, declined to give details of the 2018 case, citing laws protecting the privacy of minors. Zuniega, a PHSA alumnus and the school head since 2019, said the teacher involved in the case “has long been not renewed as a visiting teacher at PHSA,” although neither administrator would say whether this teacher was dismissed because of abuse accusations.
“When this teacher died last year, the reports came from an older alumnus, through social media and not directly with us. We have not heard from other alleged victims,” Zuniega told VICE World News.
Canlas said the teacher wasn’t fired because of the case, as he had continued to work with the school for some time afterwards. Recent findings by VICE World News also found that the school not only failed to act on allegations, but has also promoted an employee despite complaints against them.
“Is Alvin Miclat still an employee of PHSA?”
This question—posted by alumna Tao Aves on Facebook on Nov. 26 last year—drew comments expressing incredulity at the fact that Miclat, a registered nurse who joined the school in 1996 as a dormitory guardian and handyman, still works at the school and was recently promoted to HR head.
One comment, from alumna Amihan Ruiz, stood out: “Yo. Somebody save the children, seriously. Damn he's been a serial child predator before, during and after my time there.”
Ruiz briefly recounted her experiences with Miclat before ending her comment: “He's a goddamned institution, with a girlfriend from every batch. Yikes.”
In a video web interview from Mexico where Ruiz, now 32, works in arts and culture, she detailed to VICE World News the sexual harassment she endured and witnessed when she was a high schooler at the PHSA from 2002 to 2006.
“This was in broad daylight, at noon or after classes, when students congregated around the guardhouse,” she began. Miclat would hang around as the students waited for buses to take them to classes around the sprawling campus. “He would fiddle with our bra straps, because he had this sort of game in which he would tug at the clasp to undo a girl’s bra.”
Miclat did this to many girls as a practical joke, Ruiz said. “This wasn’t a secret thing. This was in front of the guards, in front of the guidance counselor and the nurse whose work stations were right there. It wasn’t only tolerated—it was seen as something absolutely normal.”
Most of the girls would either flinch or let out an awkward giggle, but not Ruiz. “When he did that to me, I made a scene. ‘Stop! Stop! Why are you doing that to me?’ So I stood with my back against the wall,” she said. “I was 12 or 13.”
Miclat then started calling her “the crazy one” because of her reaction—some PHSA teachers and staff called outspoken students names when they resisted or questioned the way they were being treated, Ruiz said. “I realize now how useful it was to them—to label a child ‘crazy’ or ‘war freak’. It took me such a long time to realize that my reaction wasn’t wrong.”
Once, in 2004 when Ruiz was 14, she was sitting on a bench at the guardhouse as Miclat was dulling pocket knives for use as stage props. Suddenly, Miclat threw one of the pocket knives in Ruiz’s direction, and it nearly grazed her leg as it fell beside her feet, where the knife stood erect as the blade sank into the wooden floor.
“He said, ‘Oh, your legs, what a waste,’” Ruiz recalled.
As a dormitory guardian—a “house parent” as the students called them—Miclat had access to the rooms’ spare keys. When Ruiz needed the spare key to her room one time, she looked for Miclat in his room and found him there alone with her roommate, who couldn’t have been older than 16, “with her hair disheveled.”
More than a decade since Ruiz was at the school, Miclat was allegedly still harassing female students. Denise, who asked for a pseudonym to protect her privacy, was an eighth grader at the PHSA in 2017 when, she said, Miclat abused her as she and her classmates were waiting for the bus at the guardhouse.
“Miclat usually sits there on a chair. My back was turned to him because I was talking to my friends at the time and no one else was behind me,” Denise told VICE World News. “And then suddenly, I felt someone’s hand slip through my shorts and almost into my underwear—it’s just that I moved, so it didn’t get to go through the underwear.”
It happened so fast that no one else seemed to notice, but Miclat had groped Denise’s buttocks. She was 13 at the time.
“I looked back, in shock obviously, and he saw me look back at him and he just laughed it off and he was like, ‘Oh, just ‘cause your shorts are so loose’—he tried to make it a passing joke. I was in shock and I didn’t know what to do, and then the bus came.”
Denise said she and her schoolmates feared Miclat, and apparently so did other staff at the school. “One of my friends, who was always sick and stayed in her dormitory alone, told me that the other house parents told her to always keep her doors locked and to pretend that she wasn’t in the room whenever she stayed in. That way, she could prevent Miclat specifically from going into her room and maybe trying something.”
“The fact that the other staff members who were close to Miclat were aware of what he does and yet nothing was done about it… showed how messed up the system was,” said Denise, now 18, who decided to finish high school elsewhere.
“It even got more messed up when I found out the year after I left [the school] that he was actually promoted to a higher position,” she said. From being a dormitory guardian, Miclat was promoted to an administrative post in 2018, and once more in 2020, making him the school’s de facto HR head.
VICE World News heard many other complaints about alleged abuses by Miclat. One girl who declined to be identified said she saw Miclat slapping another schoolmate’s buttocks, and that in 2018 he spread a rumor that she was having sex with a teacher. She complained to the school, but the school dismissed her accusation as hearsay. Another said she complained to school deputy director Abuan in 2020 about verbal abuse by Miclat but it was never resolved. Five students said they knew about Miclat having romantic relationships with some students from as far back as the early 2000s. It was an open secret at the school, they said, and he was often seen touching girls or having them sit on his lap.
A current student, who spoke to VICE World News on condition of anonymity, said he had often seen Miclat leering at girls, until right before the school shifted to distance learning in March 2020. “He'd catcall girls and tell some of them to sit on his lap. I'd always see him checking them out. He'd whistle at one of my friends,” the student said.
In April, Denise, three other former students, and one current student submitted written accounts to the school’s investigation committee, accusing Miclat of sexual, verbal and emotional abuse. The five written accounts comprised a group complaint, seen by VICE World News, and reflected many of the allegations students shared during interviews for this report.
In an email to VICE World News, Miclat denied all accusations of sexual abuse, saying he treated female students who were close to him "like his own children,” and none of them was ever his girlfriend.
“Some of them did use to sit on my lap at the guardhouse, but ever since the [school] director and guidance [counselor] told me not to let that happen, I myself have pushed away those who try to sit on my lap, so they couldn’t even sit beside me anymore,” Miclat wrote.
Miclat also denied catcalling girls, but admitted having been the subject of students’ complaints—one in which he allegedly claimed falsely that a student was in a relationship with a classmate, and another that accused him of gossiping about a male teacher accompanying a female student in the cafeteria at night.
“Those were settled in front of the director [at the time] and the girls’ parents and also the male teacher. Those were never filed as an official case against me,” Miclat said. “My 201 file has been clean since [I started in] 1996.”
VICE World News sought further comment from Miclat on the allegations by Ruiz and Denise, but he said he would only respond “in the proper forum… if the complaints are notarized.”
A well-placed PHSA source confirmed that Miclat is still employed by the school as of this reporting.
The alleged culture of abuse at the PHSA has gone beyond sexual passes in dark corners and dorm rooms, students said. It has also seeped into daily life on campus—even on field trips.
Carmina Salazar was 11 and a freshman when a teacher brought her and a handful of her classmates to watch the Virgin Labfest play festival at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila in June 2010. The yearly showcase features edgy new material—hence the title—by local playwrights.
A scene in one of the shows, however, proved too much for them. “It was at the ending [of the play]. Five of us were seated side by side on the front row. We were in shock. My classmate beside me was clinging to me, and I was crouching. I had no idea what was going on, and I was so scarred,” Salazar, now 23, told VICE World News.
They didn’t know what it was at the time, but what the children saw was an explicit portrayal of anal sex. Their teacher had snuck them into an R-18 show that wasn’t on the list shown to their parents for their permission.
Salazar showed VICE World News a letter her mother sent the school head at the time. “The genre was too adult—sodomy, incest, murder—for a minor to completely understand the genre and the story itself,” wrote Salazar’s mother. “Why was there a need to rush the minds of minors? They could not even understand yet their own sexuality.”
But the PHSA seemed to put its students in the fast lane when it came to sexual content and material. “They expect you to be mature, act like you’re 18, and be used to things like sex scenes,” Salazar said. “I’ve had to do a lesbian love scene, improvisation exercises where my male scene partner ended up on top of me, and that was supposed to be normal. I was 12 years old.”
“We were brought up to think that when you’re cussed or thrown things at, it’s normal. You wear it like a badge of honor—going through abuse.”
Once, a teacher thought it was a good idea to have the students simulate nudity in a photoshoot for a recital’s playbill and posters, which were later widely distributed on campus and at the Cultural Center in Manila. Salazar showed VICE World News the disturbing photos.
“Only later on did we realize that, woah, we were minors,” said Salazar, noting how their constant exposure to sexual material had desensitized them to it.
Salazar got flak from the faculty because her mother always complained about students’ exposure to inappropriate material, and she was forced to leave the school after her sophomore year. In order to make it through high school at the PHSA, students said they had to keep their head down—even when they were being maltreated.
“Teachers would throw rolls of tape and other stuff at students when something went wrong at rehearsals. There’s a teacher who’d tell you to hit your head on a wall if you displeased them,” Blanche Buhia, a 24-year-old alumna, told VICE World News.
In 2019, some students complained that a teacher, out of frustration, had thrown a chair in the direction of students during a rehearsal, two PHSA sources told VICE World News. The school heads, the sources said, explained it away as “normal” and told the students who complained that they were “just too soft.”
“We were brought up to think that when you’re cussed or thrown things at, it’s normal,” Buhia said. “You wear it like a badge of honor—going through abuse.”
Despite this chorus of abuse accusations from just about every period of the school’s history up to the present, PHSA director Zuniega has repeatedly claimed that sexual abuse is not an imminent threat to students simply because the school had been on distance learning since March 2020, owing to the pandemic.
“The allegation that the abuses at PHSA are continuing is incorrect. The allegations come from past administrations, and for the two-and-a-half years that our students are in the safety of their own homes, no reported abuses have occurred at the PHSA,” Zuniega told VICE World News in an email on June 9. “Long-serving employees have no knowledge of such allegations taking place. Now that these complaints are being brought to the present administration, let us pursue due process for all the concerned parties.”
But what the students and alumni have been demanding, per their January letter, is for the administration to give concrete and specific assurances that the school will be safe for students when they return to the campus this August.
This demand for safety, the students wrote, “includes conducting investigations as soon as there are rumors or reports of abuse, removing the perpetrator from the school once these claims are proven, and being firm on holding them accountable,” and for the administration to “be the first to take in student complaints, and not the first to make them feel insecure to come forward.”
VICE World News first spoke with Zuniega and his deputy Abuan on Feb. 23, about allegations of abuse at the school including those involving Alvin Miclat. Both school heads claimed there were no pending complaints against Miclat, and that the school had earlier “conducted a kind of informal way of fact-finding” on Miclat’s alleged abuses and found him innocent, said Zuniega, so the allegations were dismissed without having been officially investigated.
“Eyewitness reports said he didn’t touch the children, and when any of them sat on his lap, he would push them away. There was no malice involved,” Zuniega said. “In fact, it’s the children who would throw themselves at Miclat, as they were somehow looking for a father figure here at school.”
“We are like family here,” Zuniega added, before saying that Miclat “no longer has direct contact with students” because he has been promoted to an administrative position.
However, VICE World News later learned that the country’s Commission on Human Rights had written Zuniega a letter on Feb. 15, saying it had received reports about “an administrative officer who allegedly committed sexual abuses/advances against a number of students.” Zuniega replied to the Commission that “there has been no record of such abuses taking place” in the school.
Zuniega’s response letter to the Commission was dated Feb. 22—a day before his interview with VICE World News, during which he denied there were pending inquiries on alleged abuse by Miclat or any PHSA employee. VICE World News obtained copies of the Commission’s letter and Zuniega’s response, but was asked not to publish them.
In a June 8 message to VICE World News, the Commission’s regional chief Rexford Guevarra confirmed that his office “is investigating the alleged sexual abuses involving the students at PHSA.”
VICE World News sought comment from the Department of Education and the Cultural Center of the Philippines—the government agencies supervising the PHSA—regarding these allegations, but received no response from both.
As for the separate complaint Denise and four of her schoolmates filed against Miclat in April, the school’s investigation committee responded in May saying it would dismiss the complaint because it lacked legal specifications such as notarization and a government certification, according to a copy of the response seen by VICE World News.
A parent of a current PHSA student, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their child, said they were frustrated with the school’s apparent refusal to investigate the allegations. They referred to a law that allows school authorities to initiate an investigation as soon as they have knowledge of an allegation of abuse even in the absence of a formal complaint from the victim.
“There’s negligence and abandonment of duty. I think that’s tantamount to being an accomplice,” the parent told VICE World News.
Zuniega denied this, saying the faculty “are open to having these matters investigated properly” but they must “follow due process and the rule of law,” hence the insistence on a certain format. He said the investigation committee “is looking into the matter” of the complaint against Miclat.
In the meantime, the school has held webinars, seminars and recreational activities among students, teachers and staff as ways to prevent abuse, Zuniega said. He insisted the school is “very safe” and the students may be “needlessly panicking” over “rumors” of abuse.
“Number one, these are teenagers. Teenagers now are different from our time,” said Zuniega—a pianist who graduated from the PHSA in 1983 as the class valedictorian.
“During my time, all we wanted was to excel in our art. Now there’s the internet and online games, then they’re more daring in their private lives,” he said. “These potential abuses, who knows if they do it to one another among themselves?”
“I’m telling you, artists tend to talk and their imaginations are creative when they do. So who knows?”
The day after his schoolmate molested him, Serafin, the performing artist, reported the incident to the school authorities. It turned out the schoolmate already had a record of abuse, and within a week, he was dismissed from the school. The faculty considered the case resolved.
But the school never told Serafin’s parents about the incident. “The guidance counselor was asking, ‘Do you want us to tell your parents?’” It only occurred to him years later that the first thing the school should have done was inform his parents.
“I was feeling guilty about the situation. I didn’t want my parents to know. But I think the counselor was leading the conversation in a way that I would say my parents shouldn’t know,” Serafin said. “So my family didn’t know.”
Because of this, he did not get the psychological support he needed at the time.
“I was 12 and my healing started at 24—it took me 12 years to confront this,” Serafin said. “It destroyed my belief system with men. It gave me trust issues with people. All of these came out and I needed to go through therapy because I was on the verge of killing myself.”
He believes his trauma isn’t ultimately just his schoolmate’s fault. “You’re kids in a dormitory with other kids who’s growing up—how do you control the sexual urges these kids are experiencing?”
But because abuse incidents at the school were mishandled, the students ended up thinking it was normal. “You think this is the only way things should be done. And then you realize when you’re 25 or 26 that those things are actually not right,” Serafin said. “The whole system’s problematic, definitely.”
Ruiz, the cultural worker, said her experience at the PHSA set her up for a lot of abuse in her professional life. “I thought it was normal that people did things to you. It was normal that you didn’t know how to complain, or if you did, you’re easy to gaslight.”
Like other PHSA alumni, Ruiz is still grappling with trauma. “I was 28 or 29 when panic attacks started manifesting. Like, fuck, to the point that I couldn’t walk. I had a nervous breakdown that almost lasted two months. All I could do was cry, eat, sleep,” she said, adding that the financial cost of getting treatment compounds the problem, especially for artists who don’t earn a lot of money.
“My takeaway here is, it’s really a whole ecosystem. There’s a string of predators, and then they produce more.”
But she doesn’t blame any single person from the PHSA. “It’s not as if Miclat is the root of all this. My takeaway here is, it’s really a whole ecosystem. There’s a string of predators, and then they produce more.”
She noted the fact that the deceased teacher who allegedly molested a dozen students was a PHSA alumnus. “I wonder if it was done to him too at some point,” Ruiz said.
For the students and other PHSA sources who spoke to VICE World News, the most important thing they hope to see from this reckoning, beyond accountability for their injuries, are an end to the cycle of abuse and an assurance that the children who are and will be at the school will be safe from any kind of abuse.
“These kids don’t deserve that kind of toxic treatment or to deal with a very stressful environment,” said a 23-year-old alumna, who requested anonymity because she is still dealing with trauma. She became emotional as she spoke these words. “Because they’re just kids. They’re still developing, and they’re still figuring out who they are and what they want to do.”
A safe environment, the students said, is the least that should be expected of a public school that received a budget equivalent to $2 million from the government in 2021. “PHSA students are called national scholars, and yet this is how they’re treated. Are we seriously paying for this?” Ruiz said.
“It’s important for this [inquiry] to happen,” Serafin said, “and for this institution to start acknowledging the seriousness of these cases.”
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