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Philippines: Students Prevented from Graduating Over Facebook Bikini Photos

The Saint Theresa's College, an exclusive all-girls Catholic school managed by nuns in the central Philippine island of Cebu, sparked public outrage when it barred five high school students from joining the graduation ceremony because of photos posted on their Facebook accounts showing them wearing bikinis.

This despite a ruling issued by the Cebu Regional Trial Court ordering the school to allow the students to join the graduation ceremony. The affected students and their parents complained against the lack of due process and the arbitrary imposition of harsh sanctions. The school simply claimed that the court order was deficient.

St Theresa's College logo

St Theresa's College logo

The students decried the the school administration's alleged verbal assault on their persons with accusations of having “loose morals,” of being “sluts,” “drunks,” and “drug addicts.” They said that the photos were private and that the school accessed the student's Facebook account without permission.

Administrators said that the photos violated the student handbook by being “obscene, sexually provocative, and revolting to the sense of any decent person.” While the five students were barred from joining the ceremonies, the school has officially declared them as graduates.

Some “loyal” alumni of the school have stepped into the fray to protect what they perceive to be “biased” attacks against the reputation of their alma mater:

Contrary to what the complainant has stated, the school said to have given due process to these five young ladies. First step was that they asked the five to write, in their own words and penmanship, what had conspired in the said photos. These written accounts were then read and assessed. The school then called the parents to tell them what had happened; they explain the violations made by their children and the corresponding consequences of their misconduct. The parents, after the explanation, were then asked to sign if they were to conform to the said sanctions, to which they did.

But Momblogger, also a STC graduate, said that while her alma mater has the right to prescribe its own proper behavioral requirements, she said this standards should consider recent developments like the rise of social media:

In this age of social media, this will not be the last instance of STC students posting comments , pictures in Facebook or other social media sites. It might be time for STC Cebu to accept certain realities and adjust to them in a positive and constructive way. Why call them out with abusive language as “easy, drunks and addicts”? Name calling will not result in constructive engagement.

attyatwork.com shares the summary of the school's defense of its actions in a press conference called for immediately after the controversial graduation:

STC did not hack the facebook accounts of the girls, contrary to the insinuations of many news articles. Some STC students who didn’t like the photos reported the matter to the school admin. The school has always reminded the girls to uphold responsible use of social networking sites for their own protection and security. To ensure the students’ adherence to this, the student handbook prohibits “posing and uploading pictures on the internet that entail body exposure.”

The student press alliance College Editors Guild of the Philippines condemned the school for barring the students from joining the ceremony, saying this constituted a violation of students rights:

We commend the court ruling of Judge Wilfredo Fiel Navarro of the Cebu Regional Trial Court (RTC) for giving justice to the case of the students. The judge, more than the mentors in the school, saw that the concerned were still minors and the rash judgement and punishment would do more harm than good.

We condemn STC’s defiance to the court order. Adding to the unjust treatment to the students, they also did not allow them to go inside the school gates during the graduation day. They were treated like personae non gratae, they were denied even an entrance to the school they have been studying in since elementary school.

Raul Pangalangan, former College of Law Dean at the University of the Philippines, pointed out that the school may have intruded into the privacy of the students:

The photograph was apparently posted on the girl’s Facebook account whose privacy settings allowed access only to her friends. The school officials were not her Facebook friends, and were kibitzers into the child’s zone of privacy. Indeed, if indeed the girl’s privacy settings gave access only to her friends, the girl’s Facebook posts are technically hearsay vis-à-vis the school officials because they were not privy to her posts.

In a Blog Watch piece, youth leader Vencer Crisostomo said that the incident is indicative of the generally repressive and reactionary character of the Philippine educational system:

These incidents show only the tip of the iceberg. Repressive and fascist-like acts of the same nature are being implemented in most schools in the country. There are numbers of reports of students being punished and even expelled from schools due to exercise of freedom to expression, organization and association, and are being punished for their political advocacies or religious beliefs.

There should be a thorough review of the state of campus and student rights in the country. Basic rights and civil liberties are not waived nor nullified once a student enrolls or enters a school. In the same light, “academic freedom” or “autonomy” could never mean that a school is exempted from respecting human rights.

Twitter reactions

Reactions on social networking site Twitter were aghast at the “harsh” treatment of the girls:

@vincecinches: Hail the STC Bikini 5! #wth

@Tito_Ces: Admonish the girl for breaking the rules but beyond that is being morally hypocritical when bishops keep quiet abt pedos.

@TheDoraism: Unreasonably strict, conservative nuns.

@francesdoplon: On the STC bikini incident: Religious school or secular, admin should limit their jurisdiction to campus and leave parenting to parents.

@janram49: St. Theresa's College, let the punishment fit the crime. #STC

But there were also some, especially loyal alumni of the school, that expressed sympathy for the besieged school officials:

@bonjustin8: I wonder why many people are bent on lynching the admins of St. Theresa's College – Cebu. Is it wrong for a school to uphold its standards?

@ohyesitsTIFF: St. Theresa's College is a HIGHLY CONSERVATIVE EXCLUSIVE SCHOOL. There's a reason why parents and students are given student handbooks.

@ArianneJuanillo: St Theresa's College is a Catholic school governed by the teachings of the Catholic Church.They are expected to form the values of children.

A similar incident also happened in another Catholic high school in a city in the country's capital wherein six students were not allowed to graduate and receive their diplomas after they uploaded photos of themselves simulating a kissing scene.

1 comment

  • Dong H.

    The school is but one of the institutions in the girls’ lives. The parents are another one.
    Let the school guard their own rules during school time, and the parents their own rules outside school.
    This school is grossly invading the privacy and the right of free expression, be it in words or through the way they dress, of these girls.
    The school’s behaviour is absolutely reprehensible and their refusal to adhere to the court’s order is a bad example to their own pupils of total disrespect for the law and should be punished to the maximum that the law allows.

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