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‘LET THEM MARCH’

Court orders STC to let 2 ‘Facebook’ girls join high school graduation rites

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07:47 AM March 30th, 2012

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March 30th, 2012 07:47 AM

An “emotionally devastating experience.”

A “trauma” that “may even haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

A Cebu judge expressed his horror over the way two high school students of St. Theresa’s College High School were scolded by the principal over Facebook photos of the girls posing in bikinis, drinking alcohol, smoking and horsing around with friends.

Regional Trial Court (RTC) Judge Wilfredo Navarro yesterday issued a temporary restraining order against the Catholic school that had banned the senior students from joining graduation rites today for violating STC Handbook rules on proper conduct.

Judge Navarro ordered the school to allow the 16-year-old girls to join the commencement exercise and gave strict instructions to show the students “kindness and civility.”

The judge said minors are supposed to be protected from every form of child abuse, including “verbal abuse.”

Lawyers of the girls had described how the principal, an elderly nun, allegedly called the teenagers “sluts” “addicts,” “drunkards” and “cheap” in her office last March 1, when she issued a notice of probation stating their punishment for violating STC’s Handbook rules, including a rule that prohibits “posing and uploading pictures on the Internet that entails ample body exposure.”

The commencement is set at 3 p.m. today in the STC campus in Cebu City.

But parents of both girls and three other female students who sued the school for “unjust” punishment weren’t able to fully savor their early court triumph.

The school quickly filed a motion for reconsideration, asking the judge to reverse his order. Defense lawyer Romeo Balili said it was not true that the principal, Sister Celeste Ma. Purisima Pe, uttered those insulting words or denied the girls due process.

The court set the motion for hearing at 10 a.m. today.

“This will be a case of the student’s word against the principal,” one school official told Cebu Daily News, since the meeting and conversation in her office was private.

The nun, in her affidavit, said the students were first required last February to write down in their own words an account of what happened by way of explaining their conduct. Then the parents were called in, shown the handwritten testimonial and photos, and told what were the findings of the disciplinary committee and penalties.

One mother, a doctor from Lapu-Lapu City, signed the probation notice under “conforme.” This was presented by STC as proof of her agreement to the sanctions given.

In his order yesterday, Judge Navarro ordered STC to allow the two minors to “fully participate” in today’s graduation rites and to march along with other graduates to receive their diplomas on stage.

School officials were also ordered “to treat the minors concerned with kindness and civility befitting true graduates of a respectable institution sans any discrimination” during the commencement rites.

The students were not barred from graduating since they had finished all their academic requirements but were given a grade of “C” in the subject of “personality” and barred from the ceremony.

But the judge said having the students sit out the commencement exercise “would indeed be most un-Christian if not entirely inhuman.”

“I advised the parents not to be elated at the moment. We have to wait for the ruling on the motion,” said lawyer Cornelio Mercado, counsel of four girls who are intervenors in the case.

(Only one of them was mentioned in the judge’s TRO since the three others did not pursue filing their complaint, but Mercado said he believes they all benefit from the relief and can join the graduation.)

Lawyer Enrique Lacerna, who filed the main petition, on behalf of a mother from Lapu-Lapu City, said his client’s daughter will attend the graduation rites at 3 p.m.,

He said there was no chance the court would change its mind.

“A TRO is not subject to reconsideration or appeal. What is the purpose of (seeking) reconsideration? The issues here are urgent. I’m certain it will not be granted by the court,” Lacerna said.

“The family is ready. They will go there to attend. The child will march to receive her diploma. She doesn’t have to be ashamed of anything,” he said.

The lawyer said he too would be there to see the girl, the daughter of a physician, savor the moment.

“I just want to see the child march and enjoy her right,” Lacerna said.

The TRO is an immediate relief given to aggrieved parties while the court hears the merits of the main complaint in a later hearing.

The lawsuit raised issues of violation of Republic Act 7610 on the Special Protection of Children Against child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, and lack of due process.

In its defense, the school said the penalty was “justified” as part of its duty to discipline its students and form their values in line with teachings of the Catholic Church since STC is a Catholic school.

The school also invoked its “academic freedom” in the Constitution to decide who qualifies to study there and be its graduates.

STC’s principal and four faculty members who signed the order of “Probation: An Administrative Sanction for a Violation” are respondents in the case.

In his order, the judge said that as minors, each student is “entitled to protection from every form of child abuse that is not only from physical violence but also from verbal abuse, that may even leave a stigma on their personality for the rest of their lives.”

The judge, in his order, leaned heavily on RA 7610, the special law againt child abuse in expressing his horror over the students’ March 1 encounter with the principal.

He also noted that the school did not give the students an opportunity to be heard before punishment was given. “The procedure outlined in the handbook was never followed,” he said.

In both points, the judge noted that during Wednesday’s hearing, “the respondents never denied nor contested this vigorously through their counsel.”

“It was very apparent that the imposition of the penalties on the minors is of dubious propriety or validity, to say at least, if not completely unlawful. For it is appears that the minors were not accorded “due process” which simply means that they ought to have been informed of the accusation against them and be heard on their defenses,” the judge said.

The school presented in court nine photos of one girl, the doctor’s daughter.

“They have found their way into cyber space for everybody to access,” said lawyer Balili, and were “offensive to the virtues of modesty and temperance as taught by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

He said the photos uploaded in the Internet show the student “engaging in ‘dirty dancing’ and kissing lips to lips in public”, and “excessive drinking.

He said the penalty was “just” and that the school “showed mercy” by allowing her to graduate, but not to attend the commencement exercise.

Named defendants in the petition were STC High School Department represented by Sister Celeste Ma. Purisima Pe, the school principal; assistant prinicipal Mussolini Yap; Marnie Racaza, moderator of student affairs; Kristine Rose Ligot, discipline incharge; and Edita Josephine Yu, homeroom adviser.

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