by Cristina Chi, J-Ann Avila, Leo Baltar and Aerielle Ulanday
Former University of the Philippines Pep Squad head coach Lalaine Pereña, who resigned from her post two days after the Philippine Collegian and Tinig ng Plaridel published a two-part report on her alleged unauthorized collection and mismanagement of team funds, has been appointed chairperson of the Department of Physical Education (DPE) at the UP College of Human Kinetics (CHK).
With almost half of the of the university’s 60-member cheerleading and cheerdance team required to take classes under the DPE – and nine members majoring in Physical Education – the student-athletes have expressed alarm over Pereña’s new position and her continued stay in the university despite the Office of the Chancellor (OC) and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (OVCSA)’s ongoing investigation into the allegations against her.
“It’s infuriating because why would you place someone with an issue like this in a high position? It’s scary, because that could be where she could get back at us,” a member of the team who requested anonymity said.
The DPE offers all the Physical Education classes in the university.
CHK Dean Francis Diaz, however, said in a consolidated email response sent by Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Louise Jashil Sonido to the writers that “Pereña was already eyed for chairpersonship of DPE years ago” but had deferred the position so she could focus on the Pep Squad.
Diaz cited Pereña’s “impeccable record as a faculty member and commitment to the activities of the Department of PE, including research and extension work.”
This developed as Sonido said in an email representing Diaz and UP Diliman Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo that the OC and the OVCSA will “continue to look into the (financial mismanagement) allegations (against Pereña) and monitor the situation in consultation with the Diliman Legal Office.”
Pep Squad members filed a complaint against Pereña and four assistant coaches with the Varsity Sports Program (VSP) and the OVCSA in 2021, alleging their mentors committed monetary, physical and emotional abuse against them in several instances before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The VSP elevated the student-athletes’ grievances to the OVCSA and the Office of the Chancellor in February after a failed attempt at an alternative dispute resolution.
In a now-inaccessible 24-minute video posted on Facebook Aug. 4, Pereña announced her and the coaching staff’s resignation and denied the allegations, saying they were “not extortionists” nor “abusers, may it be mental or verbal.”
Pereña said they quit as coaches “not because we are guilty, nor are we accepting the false accusations thrown at us, but because of the respect and love we sincerely have for UP Pep Squad.”
The Philippine Collegian and Tinig ng Plaridel’s July 20 articles also detailed incidents of alleged mistreatment during training by former assistant coaches Pio Opinaldo, Suyin Chua and Amity Casurao-Trono.
Former assistant coach Niño Jose Antonio, who took over as interim head coach when Pereña and Opinaldo were placed on a leave of absence in February, also resigned from his post.
Pereña said the reports were “clear character assassination” and that they were “unable to fight back.”
The reports, however, were based on interviews with 16 current and former members of the team and a trail of documents, including a copy of the VSP’s summary of the team’s complaints shown to this team of reporters.
Before publishing the articles, our team also repeatedly sought the coaches’ side on the complaints against them, with a request for Pereña to provide financial statements showing how she spent the team’s finances or an explanation for why she collected large sums.
All coaches refused to grant an interview. Pereña told us through text message July 8 that the coaches preferred to clarify matters directly with the members. Our team then culled their responses to the complaints against them from the VSP’s summary.
Two days after the articles’ publication, the OVCSA and the VSP organized a face-to-face dialogue on campus between the coaches and students for the first time since grievances were filed. Nemenzo and Diaz were also in attendance.
Sonido said that a face-to-face dialogue had to wait until pandemic restrictions eased “as formal entry of students in school was (sic) beholden to CHED (Commission on Higher Education) guidelines.”
During the dialogue where most of the squad wore black, Nemenzo found that the “the differences between (the) team and coaches were irreconcilable and ultimately harmful for both parties,” according to Sonido’s account.
At one point, when the coaches started “confronting” the team on their allegations, University Student Council Chairperson Latrell Felix stepped in to admonish the coaches that “this is not a dialogue anymore, this is a confrontation,” according to some members and Felix herself.
Sonido said Nemenzo decided then that the team needed a “wholly new coaching staff” and the coaches “elected to resign that same night in recognition of these irreconcilable differences.”
Sonido relayed to our team Pereña’s response to the athletes’ complaints against her during the July 22 dialogue.
According to Sonido, Pereña reiterated that the fines for absences in the squad were set and collected by the captains, not the coaches. This, however, contrasts with our interviews with current members who said they paid fines to Pereña directly to obtain their varsity priority during enlistment.
Pereña’s imposition of a P150,000 “consequence” fine on a student absent from midyear training to sponsor the team’s shoes and bags had “noble intentions, though they resulted in unpleasant repercussions,” Sonido said.
“Notably, the amount was insufficient to cover the total for the shoes and bags (of the team), and coaches, in this and other instances, had to provide for their team out of pocket as well,” she added.
Our team was unable to confirm with Sonido whether Pereña submitted receipts or financial statements to back her claim that the amount was insufficient as she declined to be interviewed. In an Aug. 16 email, Sonido said her response to our questions had to “be brief, as this coincides with several simultaneous tasks.”
Sonido said the incidents “point to heartbreaking insufficiency in the squad’s training resources that had sadly gone unchecked, as well as deep roots in toxic sports culture – notably a general condition of sports and athletics in the Philippines in general, not just UP – resulting in miscommunication and resentment.”
Sonido clarified, however, that the Office of the Chancellor and the OVCSA “do not already deem (Pereña’s) explanations to be sufficient, but we see they are symptomatic of deeper issues,” and that the offices will continue to look into the allegations against her.
Jose Mari Planes, a Pep Squad alumnus who joined in 2014, said Pereña’s appointment as department chairperson is an “outright spit on the face of the members that were brave enough to come forward and open up deep wounds Coach Lala had caused.”
“What happens to the honor and excellence we stand for if we allow this tyrant to sit on a higher throne? Why would we give her any respectable position knowing full well she can abuse this power any time?” he added.
A former member of the team added that Pereña’s outright denial of the allegations made her feel frustrated. “I don’t know how she (Pereña) got the courage to say that she’s (not) guilty. Did we make up all these allegations for fun? They don't know how much people are traumatized just because of their system,” she said.
A current member of the team also said the coaches’ continued denial “goes to show that again, they never listened to us and don’t feel any remorse for what they’ve done to us.”
This is why Pereña’s appointment as chairperson is a “big concern” for the team, which dampened their relief at finally getting new coaches, she added.
Of the 60 members of the UP Pep Squad, nine major in Physical Education. The 20 members who major in Sports Science also have to take at least 29 units of Physical Education classes.
An alumna of the team said: “I can imagine how anxious my teammates (are) who are taking a Bachelor in Physical Education, knowing that Coach Lala is the head."
Sonido, however, said Pep Squad members under Perena’s authority as department chairperson or who have to enlist in her classes “can come to CHK/OVCSA for any further concerns” and that “classes have a different context and clearly identifiable objectives vastly different from athletic training.”
Sonido said the civil service rules for public servants – which apply to faculty of the state university – “provide safety nets for ethical and professional conduct.”
“There are protocols in place for student concerns should any arise,” she added.
In a statement released a day after the publication of the reports, at least 100 former members of the UP Pep Squad called the current members’ narration of their experiences of “abuse and financial mismanagement ... an accurate representation of many of our shared experiences.”
They also called for a coaching staff overhaul “to shield (current members) from retaliation and to protect future generations of Pep Squad members from any form of abuse.”
While Pereña said in the video that she wished that former members had told her of their concerns, Planes said he and a teammate asked her and Opinaldo why the members had to pay at least P100,000 to compete in Japan in 2017. The two coaches instantly became furious and punished him and his teammate during training, he said.
According to Planes’ account, he and his teammate were made to “stand near garbage bins where mosquitoes breed” without exercising or talking for four to six hours every day for a month while other teammates trained.
“Why? Because I didn’t have the means to pay for the ticket and accommodation going to Japan? That’s too much... Basically they still didn't clarify the finances we asked about,” Planes said.
Multiple sources also revealed that when assistant coach Suyin Chua made two Pep Squad members sprint barefoot for 20 rounds on a site under construction as punishment during training, this prompted a student’s parents to raise the incident with the college in 2015.
It remains unclear whether the OVCSA and the Office of the Chancellor plan to include in their investigation other allegations against the coaches publicly detailed by several alumni on social media after the publication of the two-part report.
Our team sought to confirm this with Sonido, but she declined our interview request, citing a tight schedule.
But she said: “However, we do wish to assuage concerns and reiterate that due process remains underway. We assure the community and the public that these matters are being handled with the best interests of the team and the students in mind.”
University’s next steps
After the removal of the UP Pep Squad’s five long-time coaches, one of whom served on a purely voluntary basis, the CHK Varsity Sports Program (VSP) has started to work on establishing an actual document or contract of service that explicitly states coaches’ duties and responsibilities.
Previously, CHK faculty’s coaching work were additional assignments approved by the Chancellor, Sonido said.
The creation of the Office for Athletics and Sports Development (OASD), which the Office of the Chancellor announced in a statement on July 21, would elevate the VSP from a program to an office.
The OASD aims to essentially ease coaches’ and athletes’ financial burden by “extending UP’s fiscal policies to the management and disbursement of the teams’ funding and donations in a proper trust account through a proper account manager with the appropriate knowledge and expertise,” Sonido said.
It remains unclear who will manage these trust accounts as “the spadework for setting up the office is currently still at the point of determining and evaluating budget,” she added.
Sonido said that “the specifics of the office budget would certainly include items for an account manager/bookkeeper and administrative officer” and would take into account recommendations by the Diliman Accounting Office.
With the aim to create a comprehensive and well-managed athletics program, the university mandated the creation of the OASD seven years ago in October 2015 through Executive Order No. PAEP 15-02. The order mandated the UP Diliman Chancellor to oversee its administration and allocate its budget.
Its operationalization hit a wall due to funding, functional overlaps with the CHK and the lack of a central coordinating unit to oversee its establishment, Sonido said.
To overcome these challenges, Nemenzo recommended placing the OASD under the OVCSA, which oversees programs on student welfare and support services, including scholarships, student housing, student organizations and more.
“We estimate that establishing this office within the year or within Chancellor Fidel’s term would be feasible,” Sonido said.
Sonido added that VSP also plans to conduct seminars and workshops for the varsity teams on how to prepare a seasonal budget plan and postseason financial report.
The VSP is also set on hiring a Community Relations Officer to clinch financial support and sponsorships for the teams.
The VSP posted an open call for UP Pep Squad head coach applications on Aug. 17. ●
This story also appeared in Tinig ng Plaridel.
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