Metro to fight sexual misconduct on system

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Local,DC,Maryland,Virginia,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Metro is taking steps to fight sexual harassment of riders on its buses and trains, with plans to start an awareness campaign in stations early next month, after creating a public relations quagmire on the issue.

The signs are part of a multi-part and fast-tracked push to fight harassment that ranges from unwanted cat calls to groping to flashing and even rape that advocates say they've been trying for years to get Metro to notice. Earlier this month, Metro created an email portal for reporting such cases and already has received four reports. It has formed a task force and plans to train workers on how to take riders' complaints more seriously. Two plainclothes police officers recently accompanied a woman who reported inappropriate comments on her evening commute for two days.

And now the agency says it plans to track verbal harassment, not just sexual assaults, in its crime statistics for the first time.

New ways to report harassment
Metro created an email account and web portal for riders to report sexual harassment on its buses and trains earlier this month. In just over two weeks, the agency has received four reports, including:
• Simple assault: A woman reported that someone groped her on her side.
• Inappropriate comments: Two plainclothes police officers then accompanied the woman who reported the harassment on her evening commute for two days, said Metro spokeswoman Caroline Lukas. "They rode the route with her hoping to make contact with that individual but didn't," she said.
• Inappropriate comments: The person who reported the case did not respond to police.
• Indecent exposure: The person who reported the case did not respond to police, Lukas said.
Police have not made any arrests, nor made contact with any suspects. The idea is for the site to help map patterns and trends, not just log arrests.
Want to report harassment?
Metro asks riders to contact Metro Transit Police at 202-962-2121 to report any sexual harassment or sexual assaults witnessed or experienced on trains, platforms, buses and bus stops. That means any unwanted sexual behavior, such as extended leering, sexual comments, indecent exposure, flashing, stalking, or groping. Or riders can e-mail harassment@wmata.com or fill out a form at http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/transit_police/harassment.cfm

"I want to move quickly on this," General Manager Richard Sarles told reporters on Thursday.

Chai Shenoy, a co-founder of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, said her group had been trying since 2009 to get Metro to deal with the issue but always got a "canned response."

She and several riders testified at a D.C. Council hearing last month that Metro needed to take harassment more seriously, telling stories of being groped on trains and accosted by masturbating men. Riders also recounted telling Metro employees about harassment and being laughed at or dismissed. In some cases, they have said it was the Metro employees who did the harassment.

The issue heated up when Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told WUSA9 that "one person's harassment is another person's flirting."

Blogs and tweets latched onto the quote and other comments from the agency as a sign that Metro did not understand the problem from the top levels of the agency to the bottom.

"It's unfortunate that people have taken my comments entirely out of context and also distressing to me that some might interpret them to be insensitive or in some way minimize the issue," Stessel told The Washington Examiner on Thursday. "That was not my intent."

Metro previously looked at the number of cases reported -- the agency had more than 80 reports of sexual misconduct on the system reported in 2011, ranging from indecent exposure to rape. "Our response to it was in the context of criminal reports," he said. "What we're realizing, in talking to advocates, is lot of this goes unreported."

Shenoy said Stessel has apologized for the comments but said the sentiment is emblematic of many people's views. "We're not here to police people's romantic interests," she explained.

Instead, she said they are focused on groping, indecent exposure and sexual assaults that riders regularly experience. She said her group is encouraged to hear Metro change its ways but wants to make sure it continues the push once media attention has waned.

"It's great that we are talking about it but it needs to be implemented by station managers and transit police officers," she said.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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