Whispered Horrors

Turning to online movements, survivors of sexual harassment and abuse in Philippine high schools find that they are far from alone.

Illustrations by Yvan Limson
Video produced by Abby Espiritu and Gelo del Mundo

July 19, 2021

Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the survivors. This report contains details of sexual harassment, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts that may trigger some readers.

The virtual graduation ceremonies of the Far Eastern University High School Class of 2020 on April 18, 2021 felt more like a class reunion than a commencement activity.

Delayed by nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduates exchanged “Congratulations,” “Good luck,” and because of time spent apart before the virtual march, “How are yous?” Various chat boxes contained reminiscences of carefree high school life on campus and online, and the graduates’ hopes and dreams waffling through the virtual sphere.

But what was supposed to be an evening of celebration turned into a night of revelations and accusations after an alumna took to Twitter to narrate her ordeal at the hands of a former teacher. She said the teacher first got close to her before making more aggressive sexual advances.

The next day, April 19, other former and current students of FEUHS began to share their own or their classmates’ experiences of sexual harassment. Most of the tweets came with the hashtag #FEUHSDoBetter. Related hashtags such as #ExposePredators and #ExposeYourHarassersPH, and several others came afterward.

Going through the tweets, one would find stories of harassment, dirty jokes, inappropriate private messages, and worse, rape.

The most alarming part about the allegations was the fact that the incidents happened in what’s supposed to be the students’ safe space and second home: their alma mater.

“He was a great teacher. All the students admired him. A lot of students idolized him because he was so good at teaching. And he was easy to be with. You know the teacher who could be your buddy.”

Zyra* was 17 years old and was in Grade 12 back in August 2019 when they became close to their social sciences teacher at FEUHS.

“He was a great teacher. All the students admired him. A lot of students idolized him because he was so good at teaching. And he was easy to be with. You know the teacher who could be your buddy.”

For Zyra, the teacher became a confidante. They could talk about topics that interested them both. They began to chat every night.

“That time I was really vulnerable and mentally unstable so I needed someone to talk to,” Zyra said. “He was there.”

When Zyra turned 18, things took a turn for the creepy.

The teacher, then in his mid-20s, confessed his romantic feelings to Zyra in December 2019 through an acrostic — a poem in which the first letter of each line spelled out a message.

That was the start of their intimate relationship which had to remain secret. He was not just Zyra’s teacher but he also had a wife and a child. “He communicated with me through emails, then he created a Google Doc where we could talk, so his wife would think he was doing research.”

Zyra wanted out of the relationship, but every time they tried to end it, the teacher would break down, even threatening to kill himself.

One day in February 2020, the teacher invited Zyra out. His intentions were less than pure. He wanted to take her to a cheap motel in Quiapo.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Zyra said. “I was practicing cheerdance and I was also part of the student council, so I had a lot of things going on. But he was insistent. He told me he had just gotten his paycheck, and that he would pay for everything.”

Zyra is blunt about what happened that day. “That professor raped me,” they said. “While it was happening, I felt really gross about myself. I really did not want it to happen. Until now, I can still smell how bad he smelled. It was so bad, even his mouth smelled of cigarettes.”

The teacher would insist that Zyra was 18 when the incident happened, and insinuate that the act was consensual. For her, it’s clear that it was rape. “I was so vulnerable and unstable that time, and he took advantage of it.”

Zyra still remembers what the teacher told them after the incident. “When I turned 27 and if I were still single, he said he wanted us to do it again,” Zyra said.

“That’s how sick his mind was.” 

“He came into the room, just two of us, no one else there. He lifted me up and hugged me. He was laughing while he was doing this. He said he was just having fun with me. I was a bit uncomfortable because we weren’t that close, and suddenly there was physical interaction.”

What happened to Zyra fits the classic definition of grooming. The United States-based Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) describes grooming as a set of “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.”

While grooming tactics are most often used against kids, RAINN said that teens and vulnerable adults were also at risk.

Zyra isn’t the only student who experienced grooming by a teacher. Along with #FEUHSDoBetter came the hashtag #JusticeForGroomedStudents, which several other students and alumni used while sharing their experiences of grooming.

In his tweets, Lui* told of his experience with one of his male social sciences teachers that took place when he was in Grade 11. He was 17.

Lui was crying when he was confronted by his teacher about a school violation. “He told me not to cry because I was cute,” Lui said. “The next day, he got my phone number and told me not to call him Sir anymore. Kuya (big brother) would be fine.”

He wanted Lui to be comfortable with him, that they should be like brothers or a family. The teacher told Lui he had the same fun relationship with other students.

At school, the teacher would always make his presence felt to Lui, telling him they should eat together whenever the student walked past. “There would be instances when he would stare at me, like he wanted me to be with him. But as much as possible, I tried to stay away.”

One day, the teacher told him to clean an empty room — a punishment for a certain violation.

“He came into the room, just two of us, no one else there. He lifted me up and hugged me. He was laughing while he was doing this. He said he was just having fun with me. I was a bit uncomfortable because we weren’t that close, and suddenly there was physical interaction,” Lui said.

When asked what he thought would have happened if he gave in to the grooming, Lui said, “I might have been raped.” 

“I became more mentally unstable. I even attempted to kill myself by slitting my wrist.”

In a letter, FEUHS told GMA News Online that the school had received one formal complaint about sexual harassment against a faculty member.

“The case is currently being investigated and in accordance with due process. The results and recommendation of the investigating committee will be forwarded to our legal department for administrative action,” FEUHS executive director Stephanie Ann B. Mutuc said.

Aside from the lone formal complaint, Mutuc said the other sexual harassment allegations on Twitter had prompted FEUHS to strengthen its efforts to maintain a “safe school environment.”

“We have reached out to the alleged victims through the student government and their teachers and counselors to offer them assistance in lodging a formal complaint or seeking opportunities for counseling,” Mutuc said.

But Zyra said she received no such support from the school. “I did not receive anything from them, ever. My treatment, my medicines, we paid for all that, my friends helped me out for my medicines. I never received anything from FEU,” Zyra said.

That only one formal complaint has been filed amid a barrage of horror stories on Twitter did not surprise psychologist Camille Garcia.

“First, these are kids, that’s why they’re targeted by the offender because they’re powerless. Second, there’s fear. Third, they feel that it’s embarrassing to report,” she said. Typically, the victim-survivor first considers the consequences of coming forward, which may include expulsion from the school. This fear holds them back from going to the authorities.

Garcia said this results in lower self-esteem for the victim-survivor. The self-doubt can eventually lead to psychological issues such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, or major clinical depression.

Zyra confirmed this happened to them.

“I became more mentally unstable. I even attempted to kill myself by slitting my wrist,” they said. Friends took them to a psychiatrist, who eventually diagnosed Zyra with three mental illnesses: bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. 

Kate Gotis is no stranger to that feeling of helplessness. She revealed that she was raped five times by five different offenders in 2018 and 2019 while she was a student at FEUHS: three times as a 17-year-old and twice as an 18-year-old. Three of the offenders were her classmates.

She admits that she was mentally and emotionally unstable at the time because of problems with her family, which resulted in alcohol dependence. While that eventually made her vulnerable to opportunistic predators, this was not an invitation for rape; a person’s vulnerability should never be interpreted as an invitation for rape.

It did not help that for Kate, the school did not provide an environment that encouraged her to come forward. “I was afraid of the disciplinary office because I did not have any good experience with them, they always went straight to my parents. That’s what I was afraid of then,” she said.

Once, Kate went to one of her teachers to seek help. Instead of finding support, she found herself at the receiving end of questions.

“She told me, ‘Why did you go out drinking?’ ‘Why did you go to his house?’ I punished myself for it,” Kate said.

The teacher advised her to keep quiet about the incident since she had gone to the guy’s house and passed out.

“It would look like it was my fault. So at that time, I got scared, I believed her, so I kept my silence,” Kate said. “I think that’s one of the factors why I didn’t report, because I thought it was my fault.”

What happened to Kate was a textbook example of victim-blaming, which Klinton Torralba, a trial lawyer from DivinaLaw and law professor at University of Santo Tomas, describes as a “morally corrupt culture” as it justifies the sexual violence by laying the onus on the victim.

“The victim-blaming culture forgets to point out that, at the time the abuse was happening, the choice to stop the sexual violence only belonged to the aggressor,” said Torralba, who is also a survivor of sexual abuse by someone in authority when he was a minor.

Torralba cited a Supreme Court decision in People v. Pareja y Cruz in 2014: “xxx acting like nothing happened, after being sexually abused, is not enough to discredit a victim. Victims of a crime as heinous as rape, cannot be expected to act within reason or in accordance with society’s expectations. It is unreasonable to demand a standard rational reaction to an irrational experience, especially from a young victim. One cannot be expected to act as usual in an unfamiliar situation as it is impossible to predict the workings of a human mind placed under emotional stress.”

Thus, a person in authority should prima facie believe the report by the victim-survivor, according to Torralba. “He/She should not also discredit and downplay what the victim-survivor went through even if the victim appears to be strong-willed. Empathy, instead of doubt, will comfort the victim-survivor.”

Staying silent had a drastic effect on Kate’s disposition. “That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to go to school, because my friends and that teacher knew. When I would see them with my rapists without any anger or even emotion, I felt, ‘Oh no, I’m alone.’ I didn’t have anyone on my side here.”

Kate felt helpless about the situation, which led to mental and emotional breakdowns.

“I have three brothers. After what happened, I didn’t want to go home because they might see I was afraid of them,” Kate said. “There were times, if my little brother touched me, I would panic, I’d push him and get away.”

Kate became anxious, depressed, and even suicidal. Her grades suffered; from being an A-student, she was suddenly getting C-minuses and D’s. She even had to go to summer remedial classes.

“It’s like it became OK for me to waste my studies, just so I didn’t have to live in that society where my teachers were enablers for my rapist.” 

“She told me, ‘Why did you go out drinking?’ ‘Why did you go to his house?’ I punished myself for it.”

Looking back on it now, what stands out to Kate was the prevalence of rape jokes on campus. It was not just common among students but was also enabled by some of the teachers.

One teacher, she remembers, wouldn’t just tolerate jokes by male classmates about who would be great to rape. “He would reply, ‘This person would be good too. Look at her picture.’ That’s what they did inside the classroom.”

Zyra had also encountered sex jokes in the classroom. “When we were in Grade 11, one teacher would joke about sex. He said he needed his sperm for an experiment, so he needed to store it. He told us about that moment, he said he went to the toilet to masturbate,” Zyra said.

The teacher always told stories about how much he wanted to get laid. “Us students would just laugh, but deep inside we were so grossed out,” Zyra added.

GMA News Online also spoke to other former FEUHS students, who corroborated what Zyra and Gotis said about the prevalence of sex jokes.

Kimberly*, a former Grade 11 student, shared to GMA News Online some screenshots of inappropriate jokes made in one of their group chats. In one screenshot, a male student said Kimberly would purify his sperm. That message received two LOL reactions. The same male student also added, “Kimberly kaw tong ekalam osus?” “Ekalam osus,” when spelled backward, asked in Filipino if Kimberly had large breasts.

Kimberly responded in the group chat with multiple messages expressing her dismay and anger toward her male classmate. Her messages, however, only received five LOL reactions from her classmates. After Grade 11, Kimberly chose to transfer to another school instead.

Another former student Ben* recalls a time when two of his male teachers were publicly joking about buying “nudes” or adult photographs of a female student at the school. “That’s kind of unbearable and problematic. They find it as a joke but my classmates felt uncomfortable about that,” Ben said.

Once, he witnessed a teacher jokingly ask a female student how much she cost, while bringing out cash.

For Kate, the behavior of some of their teachers was a disturbing sign of having predators and enablers on campus. “I saw mine was not an isolated case. A lot of people were offended, so we could see it was a pattern.”

In response to GMA News Online’s inquiries about the sex jokes, FEUHS referred to an earlier statement that said students who find themselves in uncomfortable situations should reach out to the school’s Human Resources Office by sending an email along with supporting evidence to, so these matters may be handled accordingly.

The jokes are far from harmless, and offenders should not be able to use that as an excuse to get away with harassment.

Atty. Olga Angustia Gonzales, the Acting Chief of the Anti-Violence Against Women & Children Division of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), said authorities should always take into account the perspective of the victims.

“If an offender said, ‘She must feel so pretty if she’s offended. I just told her she’s my type,’ but if the student is offended by those remarks or actions by the professor, it’s considered as a form of sexual harassment,” Gonzales said.

Power imbalance is the primary element of sexual harassment, particularly in a school setting.

“[Sexual harassment in school is made by] the instructor, professor, coach, trainer, or any other person,” Gonzales said. “Usually there’s authority, influence, or moral ascendancy over another.” 


Volleyball Drills

#FEUHSDoBetter is not the first hashtag campaign to trend on Twitter while exposing tales of sexual harassment in school. In June 2020,, hashtags like #DARSSTHSDoBetter, #MARISCIDoBetter, #MCHSDoBetter, #SPCPSQUAREUP, and #STCDoBetter also surfaced on Twitter, where former and current students of Don Alejandro Roces Sr. Science-Technology High School, Marikina Science High School, Miriam College High School, St. Paul College Pasig, and St. Theresa’s College shared their own stories of sexual harassment on campus.

Some of the students who shared their stories were minors.

Among those who experienced harassment were Andrea* and Joyce*, former volleyball players at St. Theresa’s College in Quezon City (STCQC), a Catholic school exclusively for girls. They were in Grade 12.

Their new volleyball coach at the time had always seemed cold and unapproachable. His eyes were always deep and serious, and he gave off the vibe that he was not there to be a friend; he was there to be their coach.

The coach, however, would make them feel ill at ease. He divided the players into two teams for a game, in which they would focus on specific skills. The losing team would get a punishment.

Once, Andrea’s team lost and for their penalty, were told to do a plank. The coach then positioned himself behind them.

“So if you visualize, our gluteal area would face him,” she said. “We were only wearing spandex so our gluteal area stood out. From the other team’s point of view, they would see that the coach faced our gluteal area.”

In the first few weeks of the new coach’s stint in January 2020, there would always be a female moderator who would supervise the practices. Later, the female moderator stopped showing up.

Joyce found it weird that the coach kept doing conditioning drills, instead of preparing for the games. They also wondered why the coach would always position themselves behind them.

One of their teammates eventually had the courage to speak up. The teammate asked the coach if he could give them a new set of directions, to reduce their discomfort. The coach said no.

Later, Andrea and Joyce learned from younger members of the volleyball team that they, too, were told by the same coach to do the same drills, which they felt were unnecessary.

“They were told to do mountain climbers. For that exercise, they would face him, so when they moved, their shirts were loose so their chest area would be exposed. They bit their shirts' neck hole to prevent their chest area from showing.”

Andrea and Joyce said they felt uncomfortable raising their concern to the school’s guidance office because the coach was recruited by the coordinator and moderator of the school.

“We were hesitant because if we reported him, they might defend the coach because they knew the coach better and they recruited him. If anything happened to the coach, their image might suffer,” they said.

STCQC has yet to respond to GMA News Online requests for comment, although they issued an official statement released last June 2020.

“We are not turning a blind eye on these issues,” the school said. “Rest assured that issues on sexual harassment are taken seriously by the administration with due regard to due process and the privacy of the parties involved.”

Andrea and Joyce said they found support from several alumnae of the volleyball team who belonged to the Theresians Against Sexual Harassment and Abuse (TASHA), an independent movement composed of STCQC alumnae that vow to assist Theresian victim-survivors who cannot seek help from the school officials for fear of retribution.

TASHA helped Andrea’s team raise the concern to the coordinators of the school, who then raised the issue to the administrators. Andrea and Joyce were told that their coach was summoned to explain himself but failed to show up, which eventually caused his dismissal from the school.

With almost 90% of the student population cut off from school during the COVID-19 pandemic, social media use among students has dramatically soared. This phenomenon has made it easier to gather collective thoughts into online movements.

This is what happened with the Do Better campaigns among various schools. It only took a few tweets containing whispered horrors and several others to echo them. Soon enough, the whispers turned into shouts that could no longer be ignored.

When Zyra started the hashtag #FEUHSDoBetter, which eventually made it to the top of Philippine Twitter trends, many other victim-survivors of Zyra’s offender came forward.

“I spoke to someone who he raped and abused. She was even younger than I was,” Zyra said. The girl was only 14 when Zyra’s offender took advantage of her at another school.

For Kate, participating in the Do Better campaign became a way for her to finally end her silence.

“When I tweeted out their names, it was like ten thorns were pulled from my heart,” she said. “That was the point I was finally able to let go. Finally, because I no longer wonder whether they know if I was raped or not, because they finally know they raped me.”

Later, the tweets shifted to online petitions, most of which called for more transparent actions from schools, as well as the termination of offenders, among others. One online petition “#PRCHelpUs #FEUHSDoBetter - HOLD HARASSERS AND PREDATORY TEACHERS ACCOUNTABLE!” called on the Professional Regulation Commission to revoke the professional teaching licenses of the teachers accused of sexual harassment.

A part of the petition’s description read, “We have been taught by society that the school is a student’s second home. But is a school still considered a home when it [gives] access to predators? These authorities are forced to resign without reaping the consequences of their actions to not tarnish the name of the institution. HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE!”

As of this writing, the said online petition already has 2,979 signatories.

Mutuc, the school’s executive director, said, “We continue to evaluate our processes and explore ways to improve our guidance program and to ensure the safety and welfare of our students and employees.”

FEUHS did not respond to further inquiries about penalties imposed against teachers accused of harassment.

While social media provides an avenue to express outrage and even gain closure, even the angriest hashtag campaign inevitably dies down. The responsibility to provide concrete responses and actions still lies with the authorities.

DepEd Order No. 40 or the Child Protection Policy mandates the adoption of child protection policies. The order also requires school officials to ensure that all incidents of abuse, violence, exploitation, and other similar acts are always addressed immediately.

Dr. Ella Naliponguit of the Child Protection Unit of the Department of Education also reminds secondary education institutions that they should be more proactive in developing the critical thinking of their students, to be able to protect themselves in uncomfortable situations.

“Our mandate is to develop the knowledge of the child, and hopefully, if given proper information, they can use it to guide their behaviors and activities,” Naliponguit said. “We should give them room to grow where they can make their own decisions, understand the concept of 'This is what I should do.'"

Article V of Republic Act 11313 or the Safe Spaces Act of 2018, meanwhile, also has its own set of child protection policies.

The law requires schools to have a specific officer-in-charge who shall receive complaints regarding sexual harassment violations and investigate and decide on complaints within 10 days or less upon receipt of the student’s complaint. It also says that schools should act upon harassment accusations immediately, even without yet a formal complaint, not only to eliminate these actions but also to prevent their recurrence and address their effects.

In the case of FEUHS, the #FEUHSDoBetter tweets trended on Twitter on April 19. Their letter to GMA News Online stating that the formal complaint against a teacher “is currently being investigated” is dated May 25, some 36 days later.

A teacher could also be sued for sexual harassment. “He has to face the decision of the court. What we can do probably at the level of the school while an investigation is ongoing or there is no court decision yet is to remove the oppressor away from the vicinity of the complainant,” said Naliponguit. “But of course, this is under due process. It does not mean that if there is one complaint, we are going against the teacher already because the teacher also has rights for due process.”

Torralba, the trial lawyer, added, “Once a perpetrator is found guilty, the educational institution may reserve the right to strip the diploma from the perpetrator or issue an expulsion order. This reinforces the provisions of Anti-Sexual Harassment Actof 1995.”

He is referring to the Republic Act 7877, which also adds that any person who violates the provisions of the Act shall, upon conviction, be penalized by imprisonment of not less than a month nor more than six months, or a fine of not less than 10,000 pesos or not more than 20,000 pesos, or both such fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the court.

Data sent by the NBI to GMA News Online showed that the agency has always received more than 200 cases of sexual harassment every year in the past five years (with 302 cases in 2018). Last year, NBI received 205 sexual harassment complaints. This was lower than the 234 that were filed in 2019, although the decrease may have been due to the lockdowns and travel restrictions.

School administrative officials who do not act upon complaints may be held liable, too.

“If for example a student complains to them and the management failed to act upon the complaint, those in administration where the victim complained can be held liable with the subject,” said Gonzales, the Acting Chief of the Anti-Violence Against Women & Children Division.
In addition to liability for committing acts of gender-based sexual harassment, principals, school heads, teachers, instructors, professors, coaches, trainers, or any other person who has authority, influence or moral ascendancy over another in an educational or training institution may also be held responsible for non-implementation of their duties under the said law, or failure to act on reported acts of gender-based sexual harassment committed in the educational institution.

“Your story matters because you are not alone, and we are stronger together.”

Finding justice, however, is much easier said than done. Kate knows firsthand how difficult it is to come forward because of victim-blaming.

“If you report or speak up, it’s like the people would turn against you, and it would result in victim-blaming,” she said. “I think that’s the culture, scaring victims not to speak up, that contributes to the silence.”

Despite this reality, Zyra remains hopeful that they would be able to find justice against his perpetrator.

“I really hope this person ends up in jail for life. If only there were the death penalty, he should get the death penalty,” they said. “I look forward to seeing him behind bars and spitting on his face and saying he deserves it. I want to see him regret every second of his life when he’s behind bars. That’s when I would be totally free and happy, if I see him in jail.”

There are several groups too that provide support and assistance to victim-survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. Sulong!, a youth- and volunteer-run organization, connects victim-survivors with pro bono legal advice, psychological aid, and other services by partnering with volunteer lawyers, clinics, and other organizations.

As of April 2021, Sulong! has already aided 119 individuals. “It is alarming that we have aided more than a hundred victim-survivors, which goes to show that sexual harassment and violence is still rampant in the society, and there is still a weak approach to addressing the underlying issues as to why Sulong! exists: the inaccessibility and unavailability of these services, and the impunity for sexual predators that still exists,” said co-chairperson Hannah Mae Tubalinal.

Zyra has a message for other victim-survivors who are still in the dark, blanketed by fear and trauma that prevent them from breaking their silence.

“To all survivors out there, it helps to come forward because it motivates and inspires others to come forward, too,” they said. “Your story matters because you are not alone, and we are stronger together.”

Some quotes and tweets in this story have been translated and edited for clarity and brevity.