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Metro wants better ways to report sexual harassment

March 8, 2012 - 02:27 PM
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(Photo: flickr/swkaplan)

Last month, WMATA began to fall under criticism for not paying enough attention to sexual harassment. Several women as well as men stepped in front of the D.C. Council with stories of inappropriate remarks, incidents of graphic exposure, and public masturbation throughout the transit agency and on both Metro trains and buses. Why was there no outlet to report verbal harassment? they asked. How to explain the callousness they observed in Metro employees?

Today, on International Women's Day, Metro is prepared to revisit their sexual harassment policies and change how the agency handles the incidents. Internally, WMATA began discussing what to do after the February hearing.

"This was something we realized as an agency we needed to address," WMATA spokesperson Caroline Lukas said.

They invited some of the individuals who spoke, including Collective Action for Safe Spaces director Chai Shenoy, Holly Kearl, and Ben Merrion, into WMATA's headquarters into Chinatown for a broader discussion yesterday. Several Metro officials, from Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn to communications staff like Lynne Bowersox and Dan Stessel, joined the dialogue. After February's hearing, Councilmember Muriel Bowser also reached out and had met with Shenoy and others, too, separately.

What emerged from the two-hour meeting was a renewed commitment from Metro to explore how they handle incidents of sexual harassment. The agency has launched an e-mail address exclusively for such complaints — harassment@wmata.com. Lukas told me any victims of sexual harassment should feel open to submitting their stories and photos. Lukas said people should still feel free to call the Transit Police regarding any incidents as well.

The agency also is investigating other ways to open up to any victims out there. Perhaps the Metro website could be adjusted to register these sexual harassment complaints and receive any photo or video individuals might have. Lukas said they'll have to figure out what's possible on a technical level and noted that the website changes "may not be immediate." WMATA's website is always evolving and the staff is still trying to figure out the best ways to present information and allow riders to weigh in with complaints and concerns. Lukas said they're also considering the best ways to integrate sexual harassment into the agency's quarterly crime reports. It's "so underreported," she said, so they'll have to examine the best metrics. All proposals are, Lukas emphasized, still in the "early stages" and staff are now discussing what budget numbers might be associated with these proposals.

Outreach will also change. Metro is open to the idea of a public awareness campaign and hopes to launch one in the coming months, perhaps sooner than later. The agency will be revisiting employees sensitivity as well after observing public testimony about the "disregard" that Metro General Manager Richard Sarles judged "disturbing" after he heard them. Metro also hopes to meet with other community groups, Lukas said, as these proposals

I asked Lukas about the tone of discussion, given the amount of skepticism people showed toward Metro after the Council hearing.

"Initially I think there was some apprehension," Lukas said.

Kearl confirms the thought in a posting on her site Stop Street Harassment: "We had low expectations."

But once the discussion moved toward proposals, Lukas said they seemed to realize Metro was serious about revising its policies. Sure enough, Shenoy posted a triumphant message about the meeting earlier today with great enthusiasm for the proposals. She credited the site's supporters with the momentum to bring the change. She acknowledges that it's the first step in a long process leading up to the launch of these proposals, but she's happy to see progress. 

"Your tenacity to share stories of harassment and assault everywhere, including those that happen on the metro, is creating a culture of change in the nation’s 2nd largest transit system," Shenoy wrote on her site. "That is big, really boombastic B.I.G."

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