Whispers in the silence

Editorial Cartoon by Denev C. Ng

On August 12, the Sanggunian released a statement in response to students’ concerns regarding “a case of sexual harassment against a professor” and the lack of updates about the issue’s resolution. 

The same statement explained that information on sexual misconduct investigations are “not easily disclosed.” The Sanggunian, then, cited Section 3, Article 12 of the Data Privacy Act (DPA) of 2012, which states that “...any proceeding for any offense committed or alleged to have been committed by such person, the disposal of such proceedings, or the sentence of any court in such proceedings,” is sensitive personal information. 

The statement acknowledged the concerns of the student body, but it also asserted that these “do not fully justify” revealing information on the proceedings and resolutions of sexual harassment cases, especially considering the cited provisions of the DPA.

The school has also refrained from informing the student body of its verdicts on sexual harassment allegations. Such investigations are handled by the Committee on Decorum and Investigation (CODI) which includes representatives from the different sectors of the University. So far, there are no clear indications that these investigations have made progress. Though discretion is important, the admin’s absolute silence about the results of such cases understandably dissuade students from approaching the school and the student government and from trusting their processes for handling these matters. 

To become a more trusted institution, the school must take a stronger, more public stance against acts of abuse and misconduct. Universities are charged with the care of the students and faculty that populate it—this role entails informing stakeholders of how it fulfills this duty. Silence about sexual harassment issues will not prevent similar concerns from arising once again. 

Beyond the noise

This is not the first time that the student body has demanded for information about threats to safety within the Ateneo. One of the school’s most controversial cases was the bullying incident that took place in the Ateneo Junior High School (AJHS) in December 2018. This case not only sparked student outrage, but national criticism as well. It was only after the case received national attention—from social media users, the Department of Education, and the Malacañang itself—that the University made known the status of the investigation and its results. 

However, not all cases receive the same level of transparency. An example would be when online clamor arose in October 2018 after complaints of sexual harassment were submitted anonymously to ADMU Freedom Wall.  One anonymous user recounted that a philosophy professor allegedly alluded to accepting sexual favors in exchange for a higher grade in their oral exams.

In that same month, the Sanggunian filed an official complaint against a Loyola Schools professor after receiving student reports that accused the individual of acts of sexual harassment. More allegations referencing the same professor surfaced in a Reddit thread that received over 200 comments. Many of these contributors provided reports of untoward advances that were supposedly committed by other professors towards their students. 

Despite the official complaint, students are yet to receive feedback about the administration's plans for an investigation. This silence starkly contrasts the school's response to the AJHS incident, where the public’s call for justice prompted the school’s  swift response. However, many netizens and human rights organizations—such as Save The Children Philippines and the Commission on Human Rights—criticized the move to publicize the case proceedings and the student’s penalty considering that he is a minor. 

Moreover, this move calls the administration’s tight-lipped responses to concerns about sexual harassment cases within the University into question. In hindsight, predatory allegations against faculty members merit more transparency—at the very least to the student body—since these cases involve adults who are more fully accountable for their actions.

Widespread threats to students—particularly incidents of sexual harassment—are concerns of public safety. Regardless of the attention a certain case receives, the student body should be informed about how they may be in danger or how threats have been dealt with. The school should not wait for an issue to gain virality before informing the community of how it looks into matters that endanger its constituents. 

Shedding a light  

As for how the cases themselves are handled, the administration can be given the benefit of the doubt regarding their adherence to legal processes for its investigations. According to Sub-section 5.4 of Ateneo’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy, all complaints must also be “sufficient in form and substance,” and thus may require long, intensive investigations, before they are endorsed to the CODI, Aside from this, the school does have to deal with limitations to what it can reveal, as shown in Section 3, Article 12 of the DPA and Sub-section 5.12 of the University’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy which states that “All records and proceedings [regarding a sexual harassment case] shall be considered strictly confidential.” 

Nonetheless, these cases pose as threats to student welfare. Given the seeming increase in the number of sexual harassment cases since the approval of the second version of the school’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy in May 2018, the policy must adapt to students’ need to feel safe by revealing verdicts to discourage such acts. 

The community has to be reassured by results that they can see. One way to achieve this is to inform the Ateneo community of specific programs for reforming offenders. If offenders cannot be named, the school could at least start with releasing memorandums on the specific actions taken broadly across cases or on whether the alleged offenders have been cleared of charges. 

In fact, other premier universities such as Yale University in the United States have exercised increased transparency, especially concerning sexual harassment cases. After former Yale professor Eugene Redmond was found guilty of sexually assaulting five students, the school made public the details of the independent investigation into his case. Yale University also revised their protocols so that disciplinary records of faculty are accessible to relevant administrators. 

Even the DPA supports processing personal information for the sake of the public good. Section 12, Article e of the DPA states that personal information can be processed if it is “...necessary in order to respond to national emergency, to comply with the requirements of public order and safety...”

Moreover, the silence regarding these allegations of sexual harassment is detrimental not only for the accuser, but also for the accused—staying quiet on these matters will not clear their names, should they be innocent. 

Forging safer spaces

So far, the school has disseminated information regarding its existing procedures for handling complaints. However, these will not suffice in reassuring students about how effective their processes are. For the school to gain its constituents’ trust as a safe space, there is also a need for it to be transparent about threats to student safety without  widespread, national complaints. There is also a need to put a more human face to its processes for dealing with sexual harassment. 

Students need to know that there are specific people who can be approached and are competent to offer aid. The creation of the Gender Hub is a good step forward in creating a physical space for people to come forward with gender-related concerns. It may also help to reveal the members of the CODI to assure students that the body that investigates sexual harassment and misconduct cases is composed of trustworthy individuals.

To truly prove itself as a safe space for students, the school must more clearly show that it has taken steps to look into and act upon allegations of sexual harassment. While there are limitations with regard to disclosing case information because of the DPA, complete silence on these cases gives students the impression that the administration does not take such cases seriously. Students deserve some peace of mind about their well-being during their stay in the Ateneo and the school shouldn’t have to wait for public outrage before it chooses to be vocal about the actions it takes to protect its constituents.

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