‘The ball is in WMATA’s court’: The future of WMATA’s anti-harassment campaign

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Anti-harassment ad at Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro stop: Tessa Dolt.

By Tessa Dolt                         December 10, 2017 6:05p.m.

WASHINGTON – Metro partnered with grassroots organization Collective Action for Safe Spaces’ (CASS) in 2012 to launch their anti-harassment campaign with the goals of raising awareness of harassment on the Metro and increasing incident reporting. Since then, Metro has yet to follow through with the initial goals of the campaign.

CASS began pushing for changes in 2012 when members testified at the DC Council Performance Oversight Hearing on WMATA. CASS recommended a three-prong approach to making changes: a public awareness campaign, data collection, and training for employees and transit police on how to address sexual harassment.

In April 2012, the anti-harassment campaign began with an online portal that allows people to report unwanted experiences. This new reporting system immediately sends the report to Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) and allows victims to remain anonymous.

According to Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly, “Metro also has a comprehensive employee training program and works with community groups on public outreach efforts in addition to the online reporting portal.”

CASS’s Executive Director Jessica Raven said, “Within the last year, we’ve seen a spike in reports of harassment across our city — especially targeting people of color, LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people, and people who are part of multiple marginalized groups.”

Raven said that harassers take advantage of buses and trains as environments where targets can’t easily escape. This is exactly why public transit is an important space to address this problem.

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Data courtesy of WMATA. Graphic by Tessa Dolt.

According to WMATA’s first comprehensive study of sexual harassment prevalence in January 2016, 1 in 5 riders have experienced sexual harassment on the system. But 77 percent of those people said they never reported it. “However, those who had seen the PSAs were twice as likely to report,” according to Raven.

Among the 1,000 participants in Metro’s survey, 21 percent of riders have experienced harassment. Of the 21 percent of people, 75 percent of people experienced verbal harassment, 28 percent were followed, 9 percent were groped, and 2 percent were raped. This data suggests that verbal harassment is the most frequent form of harassment that is reported.

Verbal harassment frequently comes in the form of catcalling, but it can also be any form of unsolicited comment. As the anti-harassment campaign ads read, “If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment.”

“Once I was asked to go to the beach and when I said no, he continued to bother me about it.” Autumn Kalikan, a manager at Little Red Fox coffee shop, said. “Plenty of people were around to witness this, but this behavior is very much normalized and a part of women’s experience on public transit.”

“When we launched the awareness campaign, we expected that the numbers would increase before they decrease,” Raven said. “We think of this increase as an indication that people feel more comfortable reporting incidents on Metro and that the ad campaign is working.”

Maya Vizvary, sexual assault prevention coordinator at American University (AU) and co-director at CASS, said that she thinks people aren’t aware of how to go about reporting. Vizvary said, “I think it’s become a culture of this is just what happens on the Metro. So I think giving the tools for people to step up and report what happened is the first step of changing that culture as well as the bystander intervention.”

Vizvary said she suspects that people could also have a fear of retaliation or of not being believed. “I think depending on the severity of it, when it’s somebody that you don’t know, you’re like ‘is anything going to actually happen?’”

Despite the small percentage of reported harassment, data shows that hate crimes have increased since President Donald Trump took office. “We have seen a rise in hate over the past year as bigotry and misogyny have been emboldened by the current political climate. An increase in sexual violence would be consistent with that pattern,” Vizvary said.

Vizvary suggested that a follow-up to the 2016 study be conducted to see whether there’s been an increase in incidents and/or an increase in reporting. According to Metro spokeswoman Ly, MTPD tracks reports and the data is released publicly to Metro’s Board of Directors on a quarterly basis, but these reports are nowhere to be found on Metro’s site.

“The Street Harassment Prevention Act (SHPA) that just recently passed includes a comprehensive data collection and surveying of actually what percentage of people are experiencing it and what kind of discrimination or harassment people are experiencing.” Vizvary said. “Hopefully that’ll give us a better idea about the climate.”

The SHPA was passed on February 21 and established the Advisory Committee on Street Harassment (ACSH). The Office of Human Rights and ACSH will “develop and publish online written guidelines and procedures to educate District employees on street harassment,” according to the Council of the District of Columbia. It also requires that District agencies ensure that all employees who interface with the public shall be trained on identifying and addressing street harassment.

For those that do report harassment, victims have a couple options for legal protection against their perpetrator. Vizvary, who handles harassment and assault cases at AU, said that victims can apply for a temporary protection order (TPO) and if they are granted that, they have to go in front of a judge to get a civil protection order (CPO), which provides legal protection for a up to a year.

Vizvary said, “CPOs are interesting. You have a piece of paper and the question is, how much does a piece of paper provide protection? It’s more like proof for police, so if somebody were to violate it, you can call the police and show the CPO.” According to Vizvary, if a perpetrator violates a CPO, it is considered a felony.

If a perpetrator is not convicted of a crime, stay-away orders may still be granted. But Metro officials have raised concerns about judges issuing stay-away orders that only bar suspects from the specific route, line, or station where the alleged crime took place. In one case, a man had over 20 indecent-exposure arrests but could not be legally banned by Metro from using the entire system.

“We are in the process of developing processes and procedures to more broadly use this authority, including suspension from using Metro for longer periods for selected or repeated conduct violations,” Ly said.

Metro currently has no formal process in place to administer longer-duration suspensions from the system. “Today, the code of conduct is used by MTPD to deny entry to the system on an individual, same-day basis, but there is not yet a more structured process to handle longer-term suspensions,” Ly said. Currently, the only way to temporarily ban an offender is through a court-issued stay-away order.

“Metro is interested in making broader use of our authority to suspend transit privileges in the interest of maximizing the safety of Metro customers and employees,” Ly said. Metro is currently researching best practices among its peer transit agencies across the country, most of whom already have this ability and use it routinely.

 “Somebody should set a parameter, so after a certain number of offenses you should be banned,” Vizvary suggested. “I would think that if somebody is perpetrating serially on the Metro, they are probably perpetrating on other parts of the world in their lives.”

“Obviously my gut instinct is to say they shouldn’t be allowed to ride Metro, but I don’t know if that’s plausible or ethical. One offense is too much, but how do you measure the severity of offenses?” Kalikan said. “There’s a huge difference between some guy asking me to go the beach with him and a much more serious incident of harassment, so how do you treat those situations accordingly?”

Metro is faced with striking a balance between public safety and providing transit to dependent communities. Should Metro be able to permanently ban perpetrators of harassment from using the entire system, even if they are dependent on transportation for their livelihood?

Tenleytown resident Amelia Covington said, “Some system should be in place where they are perhaps not completely barred, but have to complete a course to potentially learn forms of respect that they should be applying to their life.”

But according to Vizary, “There’s not any great sort of evidence-based programming that works in changing that kind of behavior.”

Audio: Maya Vizvary on the role of prevention-based advocacy and working with WMATA.

“We need community-based solutions,” Raven said. “Our bystander intervention trainings for police officers are an example of that. In these training sessions, we give officers the tools they need to recognize and effectively respond to harassment.”

Bystander intervention fosters a sense of community that encourages people to report their experiences and seek legal protections. “Stepping up for somebody that is a fellow D.C. resident really does create this community of care that’s a larger community than just AU,” Vizvary said.

It can be difficult to rely on other people for protection though, according to Kalikan. “People haven’t helped me when I’m being harassed. I’ve been in a situation where the bus driver could have helped, but I could tell they didn’t want to get involved,” Kalikan said. “But I have seen bus drivers help other women who were being harassed by kicking the harasser off the bus.”

Vizvary said that there is a lot more work to be done, and CASS has only been a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization for 3 years. Raven said, “We are urging WMATA to conduct a follow-up study of sexual harassment on public transit to determine whether the increase in reporting is an actual increase in incidents, a sign that people feel comfortable reporting, or both.”

CASS will continue to hold WMATA accountable for collecting data on sexual harassment cases on the transit system.

“WMATA has committed to collecting audio recordings across the transit system to send a message of support to those experiencing sexual harassment and assault on its system,” Raven said. “But it has yet to follow through on this commitment.”

Vizvary said that CASS is a resource for WMATA if they decide to take further action in promoting safety and awareness of harassment. “I think a lot of the ball is in WMATA’s court too. We’re here if you want the expertise and help,” Vizvary said.

CASS will be taking on the task of training all Washington employees in bystander intervention. CASS leaders will be training at the manager level with the expectation that these managers will train their employees accordingly. Last summer, they trained parks and recreation staffs as well as summer employees such as lifeguards.

“We are working with community groups and will be meeting with representatives from the LGBTQ community in the coming weeks to develop a new campaign for this spring,” Metro spokeswoman Ly said. “Also, Metro’s Youth Advisory Council will be discussing this topic during its upcoming meeting.”

If you have been harassed, assaulted, or have feared for your safety on Metro, you can: call (202-962-2121), text MyMTPD (696873), or fill out an online form to report your experience.


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