Described as an “idyllic enclave” tucked away on the slopes of Mt. Makiling in Laguna, the Philippine High School for the Arts is a peaceful haven with an iconic theater surrounded by smaller buildings scattered throughout the property. But its serene atmosphere hides a horrible secret: years of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse allegedly committed by adult faculty members and staff against its students. Created in 1977, the PHSA is a government-funded institution (P114.75 million in 2021) run as a boarding school to prepare young people for a career in the arts where they all enjoy scholarships. But such cushy conditions come at a steep price, at least for many students who only now have been coming forward with their stories of abuse and ~ more seriously ~ years of denial and prevarication by the administration. This despite their verbal and written complaints, backed by reports of concerned parents and even of the Commission on Human Rights.
Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte has asked the National Bureau of Investigation to look deeper into the allegations of abuse at the PHSA, which surfaced in an online journal VICE World News. In response to the reports, the PHSA says it is “examining the current and prior information on the matter.” In a separate statement, the school administration said it was “unfortunate” that the reports of the cases of abuse have surfaced. Abuse survivors, it said, may “file complaints with the proper forum,” specifically with “the School’s designated committees.” This seems but part of the PHSA’s years-long pattern of bureaucratic delays, the insistence that complainants go through the whole rigamarole of getting statements notarized and submitted for review or else denying the allegations outright without conducting a transparent investigation or hearing.
It took the death of a former PHSA faculty member to get former students to speak out. Alumni report that it took them many years, for some more than a decade, to just recognize the abuse they endured and recover from the psychological and emotional trauma. An employee working as a “house parent” against whom several accusations have been leveled, has even been promoted and is now part of the school administration. The impact on the students, who were children we must be reminded of, has cast a long shadow on their lives. One survivor tells of undergoing a nervous breakdown that lasted for two months when “all I could do was cry, eat, sleep.” Other alumni recall other incidents of abusive and inappropriate behavior.
Faculty were not above bringing preteen theater students to edgy stage productions where sexual acts were portrayed. Others recalled their teachers throwing temper tantrums during rehearsals and even having the teenage students simulate sexual acts. “My takeaway here is, it’s really a whole ecosystem. There’s a string of predators, and then they produce more,” says the survivor. Inquirer columnist Anna Cristina Tuazon took exception to the defense offered by PHSA that allegations of sexual molestation against faculty members was “consensual.”