Over the past week, social media has been brimming with sexual abuse and harassment stories by survivors. The most troubling aspect of these stories is that many of them occurred in schools, to children who are impressionable and vulnerable.
The students of Bulacan State University (BulSU) Laboratory High also took to social media to share stories of sexual harassment that happened within the school. On May 15, a Facebook game that asked “Ano ang kwentong computer laboratory mo?” prompted Jenna Galvez to share her experience with a teacher that solicited sexual acts from her in exchange for exemption from a project. According to Galvez, this went on until she told the teacher that she knew he was married. The teacher tried to veil this solicitation as a joke and then smugly said that “syempre pag adobo lagi mong kinakain araw-araw, gusto mo maiba naman.”
After Galvez shared her story, many reached out to her and shared their experiences with the same teacher. Inspired by those who bravely shared their stories and hoping to make a difference for current students of their alma mater, a group of alumni established Safe Spaces LHS Now to give justice to sexual abuse survivors as well as to quell the practices that enable sexual abuse in the school.
The Preen team talked to their founding members, Reyel, an alumnus volunteer, Eljay, their legal representative and Jenna, the first person to come forward whose post inspired others to speak out, in order to know more about what the school’s stand is, what their group hopes to achieve, as well as the support that they have garnered from the student body and outside organizations.
Difficult changes start within
Safe Spaces LHS was formed to amplify the voices of abuse survivors, whether alumni or current students. “Ito ay koleksyon ng mga alumni na naglalayong supilin ang sexual harassment at mga ugat nito sa LHS. Narito kami para magbantay, tumanggap ng mga ulat, at maglathala ng impormasyon ukol dito.”
So far, the group has found support in Gabriela Youth – Bulacan, The Busy Bee and The Filipina Feminists. Within the institution, their call for safe spaces has also resonated with the school’s current student government, as well as some student organizations.
However, the school administration has yet to acknowledge the importance of the movement and address the sexual abuse that the institution allegedly enables. With their alleged inaction, the admin seems oblivious at best and complicit at worst to the problem of enabling sexual harassment inside the academe. Preen.ph has reached out to the school administration for their statement, but they have yet to reply.
According to Safe Spaces’ statement, “They would rather quell the justified outrage and intimidate the student governments who have posted statements calling for action. It is clear that at this time they are more concerned about the social media posts [that detail the experiences of students with sexual predators] than trying to do something to stop the harassment that students might face or are currently facing.”
Reyel says, “We hope that the school administration will be supportive of our plight. Yung mga ibang organizations and local student councils signified partnership sa amin na magkaroon ng implementation ng safe space hindi lang sa Laboratory High School (LHS), kung hindi sa buong university.”
Aside from the student body and the school administration, the victims who came out after Jenna shared her story also had to deal with sharing the issue to their parents. Eljay shares that their first conversation with Jenna was a stressful one. Reliving those experiences and having the courage to speak out is in itself already a challenge, but she also had to deal with her family blaming her for what happened. “She told us that her parents could not understand. Meron pang hurtful words na ‘bored ka ba dahil sa quarantine, wala ka bang magawa?’”
Eljay continues, “Sometimes talaga it hits too close to home pag ganitong issue na. Pano pag parents ang nag-victim blame. But ayun, we went on. Eventually, it gained traction. I remember na sobrang na-relieve [si Jenna] when her parents finally understood why she’s doing it.”
The group also recognizes that in things like this, there’s no perfect time to speak out. “Ang mahalaga ay yung makapag-speak up and for people to support those who speak up,” Eljay says. They also make sure that the victims are at the core of their action plans so that everything they do will be of help to the victims, those who have yet to speak up and those who might be targeted in the future.
The time for action is now
As part of Safe Spaces LHS’ action plan for lasting change, they presented the school administration with their demands that included a written statement that condemns acts of sexual harassment in the campus, a transparent investigation of the accused, full and immediate compliance with the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 and the funding, organization and implementation of a Gender and Development Program to educate students, officials, faculty and staff about SOGIE sensitivity and sexual harassment laws.
Eljay explains that the school is mandated by the government to have educational sexuality and gender programs, however, the extent of the implementation is usually just empty actions. “Magpapalipad ng violet na balloons for women’s month o kaya may party. That’s what happens sa BSU. So baka yung inward yung wala. What we want is meaningful projects. The Magna Carta of Women mandates that 5 percent of [the school’s] budget [is allocated] for gender programs.”
The team behind Safe Spaces LHS Now also hopes that the development of the program will include their participation so that they can oversee how the school will create and implement the program. Eljay continues, “Sabi namin sa kanila, I think any reputable organization can work with them. Mas maganda if meron talagang civil society organization that will help. We hope na hindi nila kami makita as an adverse party sana mas makita nila kami as people who can work with them. Kasama sa community nila itong victims eh, di namin sila gustong awayin talaga. Right now, we need to do this para makita nila na merong mga nagsasalita, kailangan nilang maging proactive.”
Protecting the next generation
When asked why the student body and their alumni have been vocal in their support for the cause, Jenna says, “Kaya sila nag-speak up kasi hindi lang ako yung victim. Kahit hindi sila victim ng professor na yun, nakaranas sila ng sexual harassment. Nakita nila na dapat suportahan kasi hindi naman talaga deserve yun ng present students at future students ng school.”
Reyel also says that a mini online protest helped the alumni to see the value in supporting the cause. “An alumna bravely spoke about the elephant in the room na kailangan sumuporta ng alumnni association: Na wag nilang isambahala, na i-paglaban nila yung safety, hindi lang namin—alumni na kami, eh—pero yung mga susunod na mga bata na mas bata pa sa amin. Yung mga susunod na students protektahan dapat. Hindi lang tayo alumni association para sa get-together. Hindi lang tayo nostalgia, kundi ano yung mai-aambag ng almuni in the long run?”
Seeing a school rise up against an institution that enables and covers up sexual abuse is important. Those who speak up inspire others to fight back against abuse and to call out the practices that lead to it, ensuring that it never happens again. For Jenna and the team behind Safe Spaces LHS Now, it’s about showing that speaking up can lead to change, that supporting abuse victims can help create a safe space for young people to learn and grow.
Eljay knows that establishing a safe space for their alma mater is just the first of many steps in a difficult journey. “We wanted to start small, but we’re also thinking, maybe we could replicate this everywhere. This could be a model. A small team that brings big changes—that’s the most ideal thing that could happen.”
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