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Bikinis, school rules, modesty, graduation and diplomas

St Theresa's College in Cebu (STC) defended its decision to bar five of its girls to attend their graduation for donning swim wear that "amply showed" too much of their bodies. STC is a Catholic school and as such has the right to set standards of modesty for their students. Even the secular University of the Philippines still can set a standard for modesty and no Board of Regents (BOR) over the last 104 years has rescinded this right. This might be surprising for today's students of the national university but UP in the 1920s did have standards of modesty and the State University had a Dean of Men and a Dean of Women to make sure these standards were observed. Then as now UP had a lack of proper dormitories and most students boarded in flophouses in Ermita and Intramuros where they were exposed to vice. A few "dormed" in facilities run by churches. My grandmother who was a nursing student during that time boarded in a dorm run by Protestants. (At least we are sure she was not exposed to vice only to patients at PGH!) How to protect students from bad vices occupied the Board of Regents throughout the 1920s.

Of course if a 21st century BOR would issue a decision requiring all students to dress modestly and women (and men!) not wear bikinis, this would cause outrage in the liberal student environment we have now! One of neigbouring Ateneo's colleges about a decade ago decided to require that its business majors come to school in ties and collared shirts and blouses, slacks and skirts. This generated a fair bit of protest that the business college had to back down. And the reason why the college proposed this is that students would have to get used to dressing up for a corporate environment and culture. This had nothing to do with Roman Catholic standards of modesty at all!

And so standards of modesty vary culturally as anyone who has taken any undergrad Anthropology course would know. Even Catholic schools vary in what is allowable. The students who attended STC would have known what the standards of their school were.

However, the point of this blog post is not to question any school's right to impose standards and disciplinary actions on erring students but to comment on how these disciplinary standards are applied, especially towards the end of a student's stay in a school in a world of social media. I also comment on how our society treats commencement exercises. Filipino society puts a premium on commencement and the diploma. As a good friend of mine who is an American priest in the Episcopal Church in the Philippines told me recently, Filipinos are a "sacramental" people. Symbols and rites of passage are extremely important that even kindergarten kids have to have their "moving up" day! These rites like church sacraments are channels of parents' "grace"!

In contrast in Australia and in England, a diploma is just considered a "piece of paper" and while attending a degree conferment is grand, it is no big deal and many don't attend. The reason is that attendance in these ceremonies costs money. What is important for the graduates is not the diploma but the transcript of record which says "degree conferred". Diplomas are hardly ever shown to prospective employers! The transcript is really a certification that one has fulfilled academic requirements.

My "testamur" which is a fancy and very Latinate way of calling my doctoral diploma is printed on A4 sized paper and could have been printed from my ink jet!  It doesn't have to be printed on security paper unlike my transcript which is printed on special security paper when photocopied or scanned will show a watermark with the words "photo copy"!

STC publicly said that it would issue the five girls a certificate of completion that would allow them to enter college. They won't withhold their diplomas but it may take some time before the girls get them, very likely a year or years after their graduation. The priest who is the school's chair of the board of trustees has this to say

"But you must remember that commencement is not just a social gathering. It means that the school publicly certifies that the students have fulfilled all the requirements of the school and have lived the values that the school stands for"

Thus for the school the commencement rites are akin to a sacrament and I understand the reasons why. However, the parents of the girls have filed a case in court and a judge issued a TRO allowing the girls to attend their commencement. STC ignored the TRO citing its legal deficiencies.

What disturbed me is that when things like these happen, parties to the case immediately seek a legal remedy. However most lawyers are not educators and educators have the moral obligation to seek a  less confrontational approach to resolving cases of student misdemeanor (more so if the students are teens who are minors and cannot be completely held liable for their actions) premised on the principles of natural justice. We have to remember that educators are never in business of solely imposing punishment (that is for the judge) but they are in the business of forming people.  Educators will have to find out the reasons why there was an alleged misdemeanor and find out the motive and if there is malice involved. Whether the legal rights of the students were violated or not are reviewed by legal experts here.

I am of the opinion that STC was too harsh in its application of the penalty and that it had the opposite effect, rather then (re)forming the five students involved, it will scar them for life . What could have been done is that STC could have allowed them to attend commencement but not award the diplomas but certificates of completion. This would have sent the message clearly and that their  attendance in commencement isn't complete. That is punishment enough. Surely the girls as they reflect on their experience will grow in maturity and accept the consequences of their actions not much by the wearing of skimpy swimwear (which to a social media expert is no big deal) but the need to be circumspect in social media.  I say this since the circumstances have to be considered like the students having expressed remorse and apologies. 

The case is in court and the school has lost complete jurisdiction on how to handle the case. But this is another of those precedent setting social media cases. Schools have to know how to handle such cases with due sensitivity and students have to know the perils of using these platforms of expressing ideas and statements.


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