Metro Sexual: When Transit Employees Harass
According to Metro Transit Police, the sexual comments a bus driver made toward his 16-year-old passenger weren’t explicit enough.
At 7:21 a.m. on Friday May 14, according to a report filed with transit cops that day, a Silver Spring high school student boarded the Z13 bus that takes her to school every morning. She sat near the front, catching the attention of a driver she had never seen before. His remarks quickly turned sexual: “You look really sexy . . . you have really big breasts,” he told her. After asking her age, he said, “You really don’t look like you’re 16.”
As the bus made its way toward school, the girl attempted to deter his advances. When he asked if she had a boyfriend, she lied and said yes. But when the bus reached her stop, he said, “Stay on this bus, honey, and I’ll make it worth the time, if you know what I mean.”
The girl and her family are pretty sure they know what he meant. “Clearly, the guy knew that she was a student,” says the girl’s aunt. “She had her backpack on. She looks very, very young. She’s mildly autistic. All of which is to say: This guy knew exactly how young she was.”
After the girl exited the bus outside the school, she sent a text message to her mother. The mother notified Transit Police and “immediately jumped on a bus” to meet her daughter and an officer. “She was embarrassed. She was obviously offended. She knew it wasn’t her fault, but she felt that she had done something to make him say those things to her,” the mother says.
After hearing the story, the report says, the responding officer determined the identity of the driver based on the girl’s description. He also mentioned that Transit Police had received “four to five other complaints” in the same vein. But two weeks later, the family is still waiting for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to take action against the employee. (The family shared the police report with Washington City Paper on the condition that the girl’s name remain anonymous; the bus driver’s name does not appear in the paperwork).
“They haven’t done anything,” her mother says. “They said that because he didn’t touch her, because he didn’t make her stay in the bus, because he didn’t explicitly request sex, they don’t have a reason to take him in,” she says. “And he didn’t do any of those things, thank God.” Unwanted sexual comments may not justify an arrest, but a Metrobus driver isn’t just a citizen—he’s a public employee tasked with taking passengers to their destination safely, presumably while not commenting on the size of their breasts.
WMATA has an extensive sexual harassment policy targeted at protecting its employees against harassment by fellow staffers. “It is the Authority’s policy to protect all employees, both male and female, from any form of sexual harassment, intimidation, or coercion, either physical or verbal,” the policy reads. But WMATA Public Information Officer Steven Taubenkibel speaks less categorically about the question of what staffers may or may not say to ordinary passengers. “I believe the sexual harassment policy really encompasses everything, whether it’s harassment against another employee or a customer,” he says.
The website Holla Back DC!, which focuses on street harassment, has repeatedly highlighted the problem of unwanted WMATA employee-on-passenger intimidation. In a public Q and A, the site filed this complaint with then–General Manager John Catoe: “Several women and men have reported to us, at Holla Back DC!, that they have been harassed by bus drivers and WMATA employees in Metro Stations. We know Metro officials [do not] condone catcalling, honking horns to get attention of passerbys, or asking patrons for their numbers when they are seeking assistance. However, it continues to happen.”
Catoe replied: “Anyone being harassed in any way by a Metro employee should take the name of the employee, record the date, time and location of the incident and report it our customer service department … Harassment is not acceptable, please do not tolerate it, take action and report it, so that we can take action as well.”
But when faced by complaints of passengers, not all Metro employees are in agreement that employee-on-customer sexual harassment demands disciplinary action.
In March of 2008, Kate Langsdorf, then 26, entered the King Street Metro station and performed the typical subway-passenger routine: She opened her purse, removed her Metro card, and passed through the turnstile. Then a uniformed employee “came up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, there’s something you should be aware of,’” Langsdorf recalls. The employee took her into a hug, placing one hand on her purse and one on her lower back. “He told me that I should be careful not to be walking around with my purse open.”
Langsdorf says the man kept his hands on her in the otherwise empty station for about 10 seconds before she politely extricated herself from his grasp. “I had no idea why he was doing this—whether it was ‘Yes, I get to touch a back!,’ or ‘This poor dumb broad doesn’t know how to handle her belongings.’”
When she returned home, Langsdorf sent two e-mails: One to a manager with the Blue Line, and one to a manager with the Yellow Line. “One response was totally awesome,” she says. “One was not.”
One line—Langsdorf says she doesn’t remember which one—responded with a form letter thanking her for riding Metro, informing her that police can’t be everywhere, and reminding her that food and drink are prohibited in the Metrorail system. “It didn’t look like they read my email. It looked like someone scanned it, put it in the complaint category, and then sent the standard complaint response,” she says. “It seemed like it was meant to address anything from ‘So, you got stabbed in the eyes’ to ‘You were told to put your Pepsi away.”
A few days later, she got a call from the manager of the other line. “She was appropriately horrified,” says Langsdorf. After getting a description of the employee, “She said that as a woman, she wants to be able to feel safe on the Metro, and that employees shouldn’t be touching passengers. She understood that touching my purse was as inappropriate as touching me, and I was satisfied that some action would be taken to inform the employee that touching women in the Metro is not okay.”
Two-and-a-half weeks after the 16-year-old reported her harassment, Transit Police phoned her mother with the latest lead in the case: the name of the driver’s supervisor, so the family could file and administrative complaint. For a teenager who rides the bus twice a day, the bureaucratic response to harassment may be moving too slowly. “This is a staff member of WMATA driving a route that takes children to school,” says her aunt. “He harassed a 16-year-old, a minor, one who has mental health issues. I think that they really need to prioritize this.”
File photo by Darrow Montgomery