University ready to face charges for student’s death

Although the university, the largest state-owned higher educational institution in Southeastern Mindanao, has yet to establish who is liable for the tragedy, Ortiz said they assume full responsibility and are ready to face charges that might be filed against them.

"The administration is taking care of the incident and assumes its moral duty to the Sarate family," Ortiz read USEP's official statement.      

She said a fact-finding committee created on July 25 will investigate the incident and identify those who should be liable. USEP could not yet say what would be its next move because it will be based on the findings of the committee, she added. The committee’s deadline to submit its report is on August 31.

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Cheryl Sarate, 16, of Calinan district, was a first year student of Bachelor of Arts major in English. She told family members she wanted to graduate from college so she could work abroad. On July 20, according to the statement, she joined the search for the Lady and Lord of Utopia, an annual beauty pageant organized by the Guild of English Students.  At around 7:15 that evening, her costume caught fire from a candle used as props along the catwalk. She was rushed to the Mindanao Burn Center of the Davao Medical Center (DMC) and was admitted with third degree burns. She died on July 23.      

Ortiz said she did not want to preempt the results of the fact-finding body and referred all queries regarding the details of the incident to it.  

Dr. Daniel Ungay, chair of the fact-finding committee, told MindaNews they were yet to meet Friday afternoon to start the investigation. The rest of the members of the committee are the university's chief administrative officer, the faculty club president, secretary of the university's board of regents, the president of the campus' student council and an assistant.   

Ortiz said their main concern for now is to extend help to the Sarate family. She denied they were remiss in their duties and allegedly depended on assistance from the city government.

She said they gave around P30,000 for the victim's hospitalization, through Cheryl's mother. The amount included donations from the faculty and students. She also showed photocopies of checks worth P67,134.37 issued by the university for funeral expenses of the victim. 

But the victim’s family said the school was too slow in probing the incident. Antonio Sarate, Cheryl’s father, said the investigation was started only on Friday, eight days after the incident. He said the 38 days given to the committee to finish its work is “too long.”

“The administration should not delay its investigation," he said.   

Ungay said the timetable was meant to gather enough information “given the circumstances of students who have classes.”

"But we will try to submit the report before August 31," he said.   

Alfie Keith Apalit, USeP's Obrero Campus Student Council (OCSC) president, said the administration should already have a stand on liability at this time.

"The OCSC stands firm in addressing the issue on the lack of safety measures, facilities, and the available help (first aid) that could have prevented and or saved the life of Cheryl Sarate from that terrible incident," the student council's press statement on July 27 said.    

That the university did not report the incident to the fire station accounts for some liability, Orencio B. Grado, senior fire officer of the Bureau of Fire Protection told MindaNews Friday.  

Grado, member of a BFP team investigating the incident, said they only knew of the incident from television news. "That's (reporting fire incident) a standard operating procedure," he said.

"It would be most prudent for the school administration to assume responsibility, lawyer Ranuelo Leonar told ABS-CBN radio on July 27.   

He said the university could be liable for reckless imprudence resulting to homicide because the incident happened within school premises.   

"What happened? Wasn't there a program coordinator overseeing the event?" he asked.

Melanie Pagkaliwagan," USeP's public information officer told MindaNews that if the committee finds anyone liable, the university would impose appropriate administrative penalties. "Everything now depends on the findings of the committee, Melanie Pagkaliwagan," she said.

"It's an eye opener for us to fully implement our school policies," Ortiz told reporters.

At least a hundred students also attended the press conference held at the social hall, where the incident that killed Sarate was held eight days ago. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)