Pomona sponsors say they’re not equipped to handle sexual assault, mental health issues

Sponsors are not mandated reporters, and some feel unprepared to deal with disclosures of sexual assault or mental health issues from their sponsees. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

In fall 2017, a student exhibiting suicidal tendencies came to Scott Pease PO ’20, and Pease knew he had a difficult choice to make. He wanted to get the student the help they needed without disclosing their identity to administrators and forcing them to go to Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services, which he considered to be a harrowing process.

One further complication: Pease was a Pomona College sponsor, meaning he had the option to either disclose the incident or keep it to himself. Unlike other student workers, like resident advisors, he wasn’t required to tell administrators.

Pease and his co-sponsor went to their RA, taking care to keep the student anonymous, and together they called the Monsour crisis hotline. The crisis staffer pressured Pease to give up the student’s identity, but he refused.

Current and former sponsors report facing similar ethical issues throughout their year of mentoring first-year students, and some say they feel unprepared for the gravity of the decisions they have to make.

The sponsor program places two volunteer sophomores in a sponsor group with approximately 15 first-years who live together in a residence hall, according to the Pomona new student guide.

Unlike students in paid positions, like head sponsors and RAs, sponsors are not mandated reporters, meaning they are not required to report instances of sexual assault or mental health issues to college administrators.

But they’re also not confidential resources, meaning they can report issues if they want to, according to Pomona Title IX Coordinator Sue McCarthy.

Sponsors said this policy often requires them to use their own discretion in deciding whether to disclose problems.

“When someone comes to you, you’re kind of flailing in the moment,” Pease said. “I think that’s the scariest thing as a sponsor — having that discretion of ‘do I call someone else or do I handle this by myself?’ It’s that decision that’s hardest to make.”

Many factors complicate this choice.

Sponsors are not adequately prepared to make such decisions because administrators discourage sponsors from involving themselves in such personal situations, former head sponsor Sherwin Shabdar PO ’18 said.

“Typically my experience working with [Director of Residence Life Steven Jubert] tended to avoid these sorts of discussions of sponsors in difficult situations because it was his belief that sponsors should not be involved,” Shabdar said.

However, Jubert said he does believe sponsors have a role in discussing personal issues with their sponsees.

“I think that they do [assume that role] organically,” he said. “Those are some very close-knit relationships, and that’s why we try to provide [sponsors] with the resources on campus to refer folks out.”

“I think that’s the scariest thing as a sponsor — having that discretion of ‘do I call someone else or do I handle this by myself?’ It’s that decision that’s hardest to make.” — Scott Pease PO ’20

But current sponsors echoed Shabdar’s assessment that the administration discourages personal investment in first-year students.

“Repeatedly during the sponsor training, it was made really clear to us that the administration didn’t want us to be too involved in our [sponsees’] lives,” sponsor Bita Tristani-Firouzi PO ’21 said.

Despite what they perceive as administrators’ encouragement to remain hands-off, sponsors said the ability to discuss personal issues without the obligation to report to administrators makes them more accessible to first-years than RAs.

“There’s less of a barrier to tell us things and less of a fear of repercussions,” Pease said. “No one’s going to go to their RA with how our system’s set up. No one is. And no one’s going to the deans.”

Tristani-Firouzi agreed that first-years are more likely to confide in sponsors than RAs.

“I know of friends who were afraid to talk to their friends who were RAs about what had happened to them … because they knew that they were mandated reporters,” Tristani-Firouzi said.

Sponsors said they were encouraged to pass issues on to staff members, but widespread mistrust of residence life staff made them less likely to do so.

“You just don’t report because you don’t necessarily trust your supervisor to handle the information appropriately,” Shabdar said.

Sponsors also said they might be less likely to refer sponsees to on-campus programs that address sexual assault and mental health because they did not believe those programs were frequently considerate of students’ needs or effective at meeting them.

“I can’t even send people to Advocates at this point,” sponsor Aleja Hertzler-McCain PO ’21 said, referring to the suspension of the Pomona Advocates program earlier this semester. “I know people who have had great experiences with the EmPOWER Center. I’d say Monsour’s worth a shot but it’s something to be aware of that the waitlists are long. If someone wants to report, I would send them to Title IX but I haven’t heard of anyone having positive interactions with the office.”

Jubert said he was not familiar with sponsors’ concerns regarding the inadequacy of student support programs.

“In my time here, I think that when offered the resources, folks have taken advantage of them,” he said. “So I haven’t had anyone, from what I’ve seen thus far, say ‘I don’t want to utilize the Dean of Students’ Office,’ or ‘I don’t want to go to Monsour.’ I think that there might be nuances in that, but I think for the most part folks are open and willing.”

Sponsors also raised concerns that Res Life fails to adequately support sponsors, who occupy what they describe as an emotionally and mentally taxing role.

“There have definitely been times that I have not been able to take care of myself and the head sponsor didn’t do very much,” Tristani-Firouzi said.

Scripps College RAs went on strike in 2016 to protest similar issues regarding their inability to adequately support students. As a result, Scripps restructured the roles of RAs this school year, shifting some responsibilities to professional staff.

Shabdar said difficult sponsor-supervisor relationships can impact sponsors’ abilities to execute their roles.

“Sponsors who don’t have support systems or who don’t feel that they can trust their supervisors or who aren’t able to be present and caring for their sponsees the way they want to be leads to frustration among sponsors, leads to [sponsors] ghosting [sponsees], leads to poor decisions being made,” Shabdar said.

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