Whatever happened to: Time's Up Ateneo and sexual harassment cases vs faculty

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Whatever happened to: Time's Up Ateneo and sexual harassment cases vs faculty
This 2018 photo shows the campus of the Ateneo de Manila University.
Facebook / Ateneo de Manila University

Warning: This article contains descriptions of grooming, sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse

MANILA, Philippines — “It’s not enough,” survivors of sexual harassment at the hands of Ateneo de Manila University professors told Philstar.com over the past few months when asked about the institution’s new safeguards and policies against sexual misconduct. 

In separate interviews, members of the university community — including faculty and alumni — echoed the same message: that a new process will not bring reparations for students' past experiences of harassment, and should not mean a clean slate for the school administration over lack of action in past cases.

"[An independent review] might not adequately address the unresolved issues in the past. It might focus too exclusively on forward-looking changes, without asking the question of how to make amends for the past, especially to survivors," Danna Aduna, an Ateneo philosophy instructor, told Philstar.com in an online exchange.

"It might focus too much on recommendations, but what will happen to cases that were processed and mishandled under the old policy?" 

At a webinar on Saturday, October 31, entitled "No Justice Without Healing, No Healing Without Justice: An Online Commemoration", Time's Up Ateneo—a coalition of members of the community fighting against cases of sexual violence—commemorated the first year since the initial campus protests against what they said then was a culture of impunity in the university community. The webinar was joined by members of ASHS Safe Spaces and Protect Our Students PH. 

Placards from Oct. 15, 2019 demonstrations protesting the impunity of sexual harassers in the school's faculty line the counters of Ateneo de Manila University's Xavier Hall, where its Office of the Vice President is housed.
The GUIDON/Jim Dasal

‘They watched me cry and made me tell my story in detail’

The lack of justice, the group said in an earlier exchange, comes mostly from what it said was the "legalistic" and "procedural" way that sexual harassment cases were treated, particularly for victims filing cases. 

For Isabel, not her real name, having to go through the process of filing a case was grueling on its own, even after experiencing "grooming" at the hands of a former teacher. 

In an interview with Philstar.com, Isabel recounted how she had entered into an ambiguous relationship with a professor in her freshman year after the two somehow formed an unusually close bond outside of the classroom. 

"Back then, I was too wrapped up in having an adult confidant who made me feel safe enough to share my emotions and experiences with. I saw nothing wrong with going out to dinner or lunch with him, or being in a private setting which would have made most students uneasy. However, he had presented himself as a friend and as someone I could feel safe around," her notarized testimony, a copy of which was acquired by Philstar.com, reads. 

"It must have been the thrill of entering university, that I would not realize how much of a victim I was becoming and how improper he was acting towards me. I even was thrilled at the prospect of entering a forbidden relationship with him, and it disgusts me even now that I allowed myself to think that way."

Isabel, who entered college with a pre-existing condition of Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, said she had only come to realize the extent of the overt but underlying abuse in their relationship after confiding in her psychiatrist about the emotional support she leaned on the professor for. 

"I explained to her that he was my emotional support while I couldn’t see her and that I was happy with him, without mentioning his name but explaining that he was my old professor. She looked at me with very concerned eyes and gently told me that I had been groomed by him to allow such intimacy and it was an abuse of power on his end to take advantage of me by going out with him in private," she wrote. 

A study published in the Journal of Sexual Aggression in 2006 offers this definition of sexual grooming:

A process by which a person prepares a child, significant adults and the environment for the abuse of this child. Specific goals include gaining access to the child, gaining the child’s compliance and maintaining the child’s secrecy to avoid disclosure. This process serves to strengthen the offender’s abusive pattern, as it may be used as a means of justifying or denying their actions.

"I realize now that I was the perfect target for him. Emotionally open, easy to isolate, and was welcoming to his advances," Isabel said. 

Crossing a line

It didn't end there, Isabel said, and their regular interactions would continue for a few more months. "Despite my talk with my psychiatrist and discharge from the ward, I continued to see him, wrapped up under the idea that he was the only one who understood me."

At a year-end party organized by students one night, she said, after having a few drinks, the professor insisted they dance. 

"As the night was winding down, I distinctly remember lying on one of the couches in the bar and [him] running his fingers through my hair in an intimate way, and despite my drunken state, leaned down to kiss me lightly on the lips. It was a few days before my birthday, and I was only 17 when this occurred," she said. 

The last time the two interacted over dinner and a beer, the professor crossed a line that prompted her to file a case. 

"He asked if I would like a milkshake so we walked to the nearby store. It was here where he opened up the conversation and asked me about my sexual activities. I was rather surprised at the conversation. He proudly boasted that he also was in a physical relationship with someone. I was already uncomfortable with the topic and made an excuse that I had a curfew to go back to the dorm," she wrote. 

"He booked an Uberpool even for the short distance to my dorm to give me a ride back. When I disembarked from the car, he also got down from the passenger’s seat to see me off. He caught me in a hug and suddenly kissed me on the lips."

After this, she ran up the stairs to her dorm room and called another student the professor had been spending time with. The two shared their experiences and it was only then, she said, that the gravity of the situation had set in: the two of them had been manipulated, and eventually, groomed.

Over the eight-month period in between the filing of her complaint to her graduation, she continued to see him around the campus and its surrounding roads long after her notarized statement was submitted to the school’s administration.

In some instances, she would also see him walking in and around campus with other girls from the school’s senior high school. Throughout this period, she said, there were also a few times he tried to contact her. 

Filing the case

But according to Isabel, filing a case was an uphill climb all on its own, and was one she had to make in the dark, all while carrying the weight of the trauma left by her someone she called teacher. "I didn't know what was going on. I was always in this state of fear and anxiety during the time that I was filing it...he was pretty clearly just around the area," she said in an interview. 

It was at her required interview—one she was made to attend despite already submitting her notarized testimony—that she came to realize the way the school treated victims of sexual misconduct. 

The room was drenched in gloom, laden with foreboding, and as welcoming as a headache. Upon showing up at the venue—a long-winded conference room—she was made to sign an acknowledgment form that spelled her name incorrectly and, she said, reduced her to a student ID number.

She was asked to take a seat at the other end of a long table to face members of an investigative committee. It was as if she was expected to deliver a persuasive sales pitch, rather than make her case for her story. 

"They wanted me to 'elaborate' on the experience...I went into detail because I understood that it was necessary for them, but it was almost inhumane...they wanted me to tell them what happened after I had already written it in my testimony in great detail about what happened," she said, adding the panel was "almost hostile in their indifference."

“I know that I talked to a priest, two lawyers that represented the school, and someone from human resources...I was made to sit in front of those people. [And] it was very cold, very corporate the way they talked to me. They asked very personal things…I know it’s protocol, but it was so impersonal. At one point, I started crying. I didn’t like reliving what I had written just because they had to verify it,” she added. 

She said that the manner that the investigation was done made her feel like she had been left alone and that the school had neglected her.

"During that time I didn’t feel safe going back to my own dorm. I didn’t want to walk home by myself. Being unsafe 24/7 took a toll on my mental health...I felt like I filed this complaint, and they focused a lot on verifying whether or not it was true, which I understand. But in the process, I feel like they neglected the fact that this is a traumatic experience that took real emotional and psychological tolls."

Though the professor was later sacked from his teaching post, he was allowed to continue pursuing his master's degree on campus and Isabel would still see him walking around.

"Ateneo’s so big on [caring for the whole person] but they couldn’t ensure my physical safety or my mental health," she said.

The ordeal lasted two and a half years.

'It's really just re-victimization'

In March 2020, The GUIDON, the school's official student publication, reported in a story entitled, "Alumni come forward about sexual harassment cases against philosophy professor" the experiences of other students with the professor whom the university's leadership previously defended publicly.

Patricia Escalante, an Ateneo graduate who was among the first students to file a formal case and go public with it, recalled in the story her experience with Dr. Jesus Deogracias Principe, a faculty member of the Department of Philosophy whom she selected as her thesis advisor. 

She recounted that their academic relationship morphed into something else after she received inappropriate messages from him, at which point he also suggested the two go out on a date. 

Escalante's sexual harassment case against Principe was eventually filed as a disciplinary case, not a sexual harassment one, years before the university's former president claimed publicly that no formal cases were filed against him. 

In video interviews released over Time's Up Ateneo channels, Escalante said that many of the questions and concerns she brought up in an exchange with the university president were never addressed and that the process of filing a case only added to her injustice instead of alleviating it. 

"All I got was...'we made a mistake, and we're reclassifying it period.' They [passed] it onto someone else to figure out...The question right now is, why haven't they come out with a public post taking back what they did and apologizing for that?" she said. 

"I was made to feel like it didn't matter...every step of the way, I remembered thinking 'I wish I didn't do this.' It's really just re-victimization. It's like I'm going through something already, and then I feel like I'm made to go through something else, another injustice, and I'm made to go through them at the same time."

RELATED: Lack of formal complaint doesn't mean no harassment happened, Ateneo group says

According to a student council report sent to Philstar.com, from August 2017 to July 2019, only 29.5% of sexual harassment cases were properly filed and resolved, while 31.6% of cases filed were still being processed. The remaining 39.5%, however, remained without official disciplinary cases with the university administration and were only informal cases brought to the attention of the student government. 

READ: Ateneo vows justice amid surfacing of sexual misconduct allegations vs faculty members

Asked what healing would look like for her moving forward, Escalante said: "I don't think I can completely move past this until I'm sure the institution is really a safe space...justice for me would start with holding everyone accountable."

"You cannot be in a leadership position if you've caused these kinds of pains and trauma on your students. I think there should be some sort of review of who should stay in power," she added. 

"An apology is just an opening statement. Before looking forward, there's looking back. It never really leaves you...even if it was years ago, it's not like I can get over it and I'm okay right now. I think it's affected the way I relate to other people, the way I think about certain things, even my relationships. I think it's something that's going to stay with me forever," she said. 

October 2019 protests

Over a year ago on October 15, the school was rocked by a sudden protest demonstration after anonymous accounts of sexual harassment at the hands of a faculty member spread like wildfire on social media. 

In the spirit of the #MeToo movement, students of the institution gathered outside the building housing its Literature and Philosophy departments demanding transparency from the administration on the progress of existing cases. "Sexual predators, get out of Ateneo!" they demanded in protest. 

More than 1,000 Ateneo alumni at the time also signed a petition calling for the university to act on the longstanding issue and condemning what they said were "inadequate and opaque responses." 

A week after the protests, then-university president Jett Villarin released a statement that expressed concern "about the well-being of everyone, especially the hurting," but in the same breath highlighted that the university's Committee on Decorum and Investigation had supposedly not received any formal student complaints against the professors involved. 

In response to Villarin's statement, Escalante wrote in a Facebook post: "I filed a case against Jade Principe in 2016. The complaint was sexual in nature and the institution gave an official decision. Ateneo, please explain why you're saying there are no official charges. If everything presented was not enough to warrant a sexual harassment case, please tell me what it would take."

READ: Lack of formal complaint doesn't mean no harassment happened, Ateneo group says

Less than half a year after the October protests, the university was forced to reckon with the issue of sexual misconduct on campus once more, issuing a statement in June in response to a litany of sexual harassment complaints from its senior high school. 

"The misleading effect of the (Villarin) memo has discredited the voices of survivors and advocates in a time where they were asking to be heard," Aduna, herself a member of Time's Up Ateneo, said. 

"The most surprising yet unsurprising thing for me is that sexual predators are still in Ateneo."

READ: Ateneo 'saddened' by reports of sexual harassment, vows action 'if warranted'

New system

On August 29, the university administration approved its new Code of Decorum and Administrative Rules on Sexual Harassment, Other Forms of Sexual Misconduct, and Inappropriate Behavior. In its new code, the school adopts a zero-tolerance and whole-of-university approach against all forms of sexual harassment and highlights the observance of due process in the conduct of investigative proceedings.

Other changes in the new code include:

  • Expanding the jurisdiction of the school's gender hub to provide care services, case companion services, and protection services to any survivors coming forward. 
  • Covers both formal complaints and informal reports, where the previous code only covered formal complaints
  • Creates a University Decorum and Investigation System
  • Asserts that all members of the University community have a duty to report sexual harassment, other forms of sexual misconduct, and inappropriate behavior
  • Requires investigation committee members to attend mandatory training upon their appointment and continuing training programs on gender-sensitivity and providing psychosocial assistance

"[A]dministrative disciplinary proceedings are intended to correct errant behavior, instill accountability for one’s actions, repair the harm done, promote restoration for all persons concerned to the extent possible, and ensure a safe environment for all its members," it reads. 

"The Code and Rules recognizes that sexual harassment is a social reality rooted in gender inequality. We live in a society where gender inequality is systemic and gender-based violence is normative."

Though the new system and its forthcoming review are a welcome change and, at least ostensibly, a step in the right direction, Time’s Up Ateneo on Saturday called attention to victims who have already graduated with little to no resolution to their experiences.

For the university community, the new code is a way to make the issue go away quietly. For many former students, the damage has already been done.

"When I talked to survivors after the code came out, they asked' What does the code do for me? I already went through the process...this doesn't address those pains that have already been done,'" Aduna said. "We (faculty) were told that there's a new code, so we don't have to talk about the issue any more in the community."

Though it does not use the term "grooming," the university's new code of decorum also prohibits teachers from "dating, asking for a date with, engaging in amorous or sexual activities or relationships with, asking to engage in amorous or sexual activities or relationships with, or engaging in any activity designed to encourage or which does encourage an amorous or sexual relationship with, students who are 18 years old or older."

"The relationship between teachers and students is one of utmost trust. The inherent power imbalance in this relationship increases the potential for teachers to abuse their authority, influence, or moral ascendancy," it reads in Section 5.3, adding that social interactions between students and teachers outside of class or campus should, as much as possible, be limited to official school functions.

Requirement for notarization

There’s a reason that many victims said they did not get their justice, and a growing body of students, faculty, and alumni say that reason is the institution’s system for processing cases. 

In an online exchange with Philstar.com, one alumnus who helped build a case against a professor pointed to the requirement for notarized statements as a hindrance.

According to the former student, out of some 30 statements gathered about the same professor, only about five moved forward in the process after being notarized—despite all of them making similar allegations of sexual misconduct. 

Other cases were also filed as disciplinary cases instead of sexual harassment cases despite also being sexual in nature, while the rest were left to languish.  

“[The] notarization part was a big reason that no formal cases were filed because even with their statements the school couldn’t consider them as official complaints,” the former student, who requested anonymity, said, adding that once students submitted their notarized statements, they would still have to sign non-disclosure agreements. 

“After the notarized statements, it's really between just between the victim and the school. We couldn't help anymore... It was hard because almost everyone [had already graduated] and most of them were no longer in Metro Manila,” the graduate also said.

READ: Ateneo students protest 'inaction' on sexual harassment by faculty

Worse, even for cases that did move forward, the student shared sentiments with Isabel: no updates were provided by the administration on the progress of investigative proceedings. 

“I think things could have definitely been more transparent. Not just with the [viral] case, but even with other cases concerning other professors. As a student body, we weren’t updated or informed when a certain professor had a sexual harassment case unless it was made public,” they said. 

“I think that’s a really big problem because unless you’re a victim yourself or you are part of the process, you’re not really updated anymore regarding the case."

Photo shows a copy of the non-disclosure agreement template that parties to cases are allegedly made to sign.

The school's new code for dealing with similar cases has since let go of any provisions on the requirement for notarization, but the past cases that ultimately went unfiled remain unsolved and unaddressed. 

In lieu of notarized statements, the current administrative rules require instead a "Certification of Truthfulness and Authenticity presence of an authorized representative."

The new code is also careful to include a note saying: "If [the Commission on Higher Education] requires notarization in its amended rules, this provision will have to be revised accordingly." 

Non-disclosure agreements

Earlier statements from the school in response to past allegations were careful to mention that the university could not disclose any information pertaining to the identities of individuals involved, the content of investigative proceedings and the succeeding decision made by the university due to confidentiality restrictions in the Data Privacy Act and the Safe Spaces Act. 

Ateneo also routinely referred to its earlier Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy, which noted that “all concerned parties are required to ensure the confidentiality of the issue during the issue [and] guarantee utmost respect for individual privacy” in official cases of sexual harassment.

Maria Luz Vilches, the university's Vice President for the Loyola Schools, said in an earlier statement that the university decided to keep information on students and the still-unnamed professor confidential “to respect the privacy and uphold the dignity of all those concerned” but that the school took allegations of sexual misconduct “very seriously and diligently.”

Survivors have said that this emphasis on privacy only silenced victims, rendering them unable to air their sides of the story. 

In its webinar on Saturday, Time's Up Ateneo slammed the university for its culture of "himpathy"—defined by Cornell philosopher Kate Manne as “excessive sympathy sometimes shown to male perpetrators of sexual violence,” in the attempt to preserve their reputation. 

"For all the university community’s effort at intentional discourse and action, a culture of silence still very clearly permeates the 'safe space' Ateneo has so proudly built for itself," The GUIDON wrote in a 2018 editorial. 

"The scrutiny that people throw at survivors and advocates is often so unfair," Time's Up Ateneo said. "It's not just getting lost in the bureaucracy, but you feel like what happened to you isn't real because of how difficult the process is...It's hard to navigate the bureaucracy if you're alone."

Though not directly mentioning the non-disclosure agreements, a number of current and former students opted not to be interviewed when sought by Philstar.com even under the condition of anonymity. They were particularly adamant about not talking about their experience filing cases and going through the school's process. 

"I’m not saying anything, in fact. All I’m saying is that right now, I cannot speak about my case and whether or not there was any NDA involved...This information is something that has been going around, but at this moment, I can’t give any information on my case, so I won’t be able to confirm or deny this right now," one of them said in an online exchange. 

The school's new code is also still careful to highlight in Section 42, which touches on confidentiality, that: "Unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, whether done intentionally or through negligence, could violate individual privacy rights and personnel non-disclosure agreements."

"I understand the need for data privacy, but I do not understand why they should be so opaque towards the people who have filed complaints. Because the process itself is very opaque. You get one email maybe once every three months, and they don't really reply to you," Isabel said.

While the need for privacy is a very real concern on the part of victims, particularly those who don’t want their filing to go public, there are many who feel that the requirement is used not to protect them but to silence students while proceedings go on behind closed doors.

"[S]ince the main complaint of students is that the investigation process of Ateneo is broken, putting a gag order on students who went through the process stops students from exposing and criticizing the system," one anonymous source told Philstar.com in an email, referring to the NDAs as a "catch-and-kill strategy" where the school offers victims a formal investigation in exchange for their silence. 

"In the end, all is well because the victim has been silenced," the source said. 

Copies acquired by Philstar.com suggest that the NDAs that students filing complaints were made to sign prohibit the disclosure of any "personal information [about] an individual's health, education, genetic, or sexual life of a person."

"The receiving party shall not disclose to any party, including the data subject's parents, any personal, sensitive, and/or privileged information regarding the student...in relation to the complaint you filed against him," another copy reads. 

On the day of the October protests, Philstar.com also reached out to a number of professors who said they were “scared” of the possibility of sanctions from the university's management should they comment on the issue.

READ: Ateneo hears out student demands on sexual harassment allegations

Photo shows a copy of the template for non-disclosure agreements that Ateneo students filing sexual misconduct cases are allegedly made to sign.

What happens now?

With the university moving forward under online classes and with a recalibrated code against sexual harassment, former students ask: What about our pain?

But justice looks different for everyone, Time's Up Ateneo said Saturday, and acknowledging this fact would only be a start for the university, not implementing a new code. 

"There should be a way to make reparations for the past, and that's not completely achieved by an independent audit and new code," Time's Up Ateneo said in a text message. 

"We want to continue to engage the university administration and community to help center survivors' vision of justice and healing, as the university goes through these institutional reforms."

For Isabel, justice is making sure that her story is never repeated again. "I believe that [he] should be permanently removed from the grounds of Ateneo and that no girl will ever fall to his manipulations."

For Patricia, telling her story in protest was the first step in healing. "It's an injustice that was done to me and I can never be made to feel like it's a secret just to protect certain people...it happened to me, it's my story, and I can tell it whenever I want," she said. 

Ateneo itself has yet to respond to numerous requests for comment, and both Nina Patricia Sison-Arroyo, the university legal counsel, and Jeanne Illo, the independent auditor tasked with reviewing the school’s systems in dealing with these cases, opted not to comment when sought for clarification by Philstar.com.

"I would like to call on the university specifically and the community to honor the stories of these survivors and uphold their ownership of their stories and their right to tell it or not tell it. Their stories are unsettling, but I think we should be unsettled," Aduna said. 

"Healing justice can only happen when the stories of survivors, their voices, their fears, their anger, their courage are seen and heard and put at the forefront of this process."





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