Pomona hosts forum on sexual assault survivors program to hear from students

Four Pomona College administrators sit on stage.
The President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Violence Intervention and Prevention (PAC-SVIP) holds a meeting to discuss the suspension of Pomona College’s Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault program. (Timothy Liu • The Student Life)

After abruptly suspending Pomona College’s Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault program in February, the President’s Advisory Committee on Sexual Violence Intervention and Prevention (PAC-SVIP) held a forum Tuesday to collect feedback from community members regarding recommendations the committee outlined in a previous email.

These recommendations included establishing a partnership between the advocates program and Project Sister, a local survivor support organization, and creating a peer-to-peer education group and a Campus Advocacy, Resources and Education program.

The forum primarily focused on the future of the advocates program, which will resume in fall 2019, according to the committee. The program was ended due to legal concerns about confidentiality due to a lack of training and confidential student reports of negative experiences with the advocates.

Last summer, advocates were informed by Pomona Title IX coordinator Sue McCarthy that in order to maintain their confidential status, they needed to complete 40 hours of Project Sister training. However, McCarthy gave advocates the wrong dates for the program, and the advocates didn’t end up doing the training. This created potential issues with the Clery Act, and advocates were later informed by McCarthy that they were no longer confidential resources.

Oona Eisenstadt, the committee’s faculty chair, emphasized the importance of the role advocates play in supporting survivors, and said they’ve done amazing work.

During the forum, students expressed concern about the level of administrative involvement in the advocates program going forward, citing a history of the advocates acting as a check on the administration.

“The advocates had a political side to their work in that they were leaders of many actions and student protests and movements specifically in opposition to moves made by the administration,” Olivia Wood PO ’19, one of the head coordinators of the Pomona Women’s Union, said in an interview with TSL.

Emily Coffin PO ’19, a former advocate, expressed her concern that the administration was pushing survivors to report to non-confidential resources rather than publicizing those that were confidential. However, administrators said it was never their intention to nudge survivors in any direction, just to make them aware of their options.

Students, faculty and administrators also repeatedly spoke about a lack of trust between students and administrators. According to Ellie Ash-Balá, an associate dean and PAC-SVIP member, that’s something the school has been working on all year.

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“I think it’s going to take all of us working together, communicating with each other to rebuild some of that trust,” Ash-Balá said in an interview with TSL.

Some students said they felt the forum was a positive first step in establishing open communication between the administration and students.

“I thought it was an instance where students, faculty and admin came together to have conversations that, as best I can tell, seem to have been some of the most productive yet,” said Eli Cohen PO ’19, who attended the forum.

Rachel Levin, a biology and neuroscience professor, urged students and administrators to put survivors first during the process of re-developing the advocates program and survivor support systems on Pomona’s campus, and stressed the importance of addressing the mistrust between students and administrators in the selection of new advocates.

PAC-SVIP’s final action report is still in the planning stages, so it’s unclear how or to what extent the committee will address suggestions and concerns raised at the forum.

When the advocates program returns in the fall, advocates will receive training from Project Sister and will be selected through an application and interview process, Ash-Balá said. The selection process will involve input from staff, faculty, students and Project Sister representatives, she said.

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