D.C. Metro Combats Sexual Harassment, Urges Riders To Speak Up

Sexual harassment is a chronic problem for transit systems, and it's consistently underreported. Metro transit officials have kicked off a serious effort to fight harassment on buses and trains.

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Here in Washington, D.C., more than 725,000 people ride Metro trains - that's the subway - every weekday. Inevitably, some people behave badly. Sexual harassment is a problem for transit systems all over the world. And this month, Washington's transit agency launched a new effort to do something about it. NPR's Leah Binkovitz reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBWAY STATION)

LEAH BINKOVITZ, BYLINE: It's the evening rush hour in Rosslyn, Va., just outside Washington. Men and women carrying briefcases file in and out of the underground train station, riding escalators that inch their way ever deeper below the office buildings above. Most walk right by the volunteers handing out bracelets and fliers, but some stop.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How about you, sir?

BINKOVITZ: Cameron Frasier pauses. He says the sea-foam color of the stretchy bracelet caught his eye on the way home from his corporate consulting job. He hasn't thought much about sexual harassment on Metro, but...

CAMERON FRASIER: Now that you mention it, yeah, some people have mentioned, like, creepers around on the bus and Metro.

BINKOVITZ: Creepers - that's one way to put it. To transit officials here, there's another: sexual harassment. It's not just a problem here. In Japan, Mexico and India, some train cars and buses are segregated by sex. In the U.S., transit agencies have launched public awareness campaigns. But it's hard to get a handle on how widespread this problem really is. Surveys show only a few people who experience it ever report it. Therese Dorau was one of those who did. It happened last year.

THERESE DORAU: I was riding a Metro train, and a man sat down next to a woman. This was during the rush-hour commute, on the way home.

BINKOVITZ: She's a consultant. She commuted on Metro for years.

DORAU: And he basically was touching himself while he was sitting next to her.

BINKOVITZ: The woman shoved the man out of the seat.

DORAU: Everyone was just kind of shocked and really didn't know how to address it.

CHAI SHENOY: It's something that as a woman in the city, this is what you deal with.

BINKOVITZ: That's Chai Shenoy. She's a local activist who took up this cause.

SHENOY: We're trying to say, it shouldn't be what you deal with.

BINKOVITZ: The group she co-founded, Collective Action For Safe Spaces, asked transit riders to come forward with their stories and pushed Metro to respond. She's sitting in the busy Chinatown Metro Station. More than 25,000 people pass through these cavernous gray tunnels every day. Three train lines connect here; several Smithsonian museums and a big arena sit right upstairs. Because of that, Shenoy says they saw a lot of complaints from this station.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you for riding Metro, and have a safe day.

BINKOVITZ: Now, Shenoy says, she hopes this transit system can set an example nationwide.

SHENOY: We are trying to become the gold standard for addressing public sexual harassment and assault.

BINKOVITZ: Metro wants that, too. Caroline Laurin heads its sexual harassment task force.

CAROLINE LAURIN: This is something that as an agency, we take very seriously.

BINKOVITZ: Metro has a couple goals. One: Encourage people to report harassment. Two: Make sure employees know how to respond. The agency borrowed posters from Boston, and placed them around the stations back in 2012. One pictured a woman standing in a crowded train. Below her it said: Rub Against Me and I'll Expose You. But now, the agency is going further.

LAURIN: We had to back that up with some internal training. We had always had, you know, training about sexual harassment within the workplace, co-worker to co-worker. But this was something entirely new.

BINKOVITZ: This month, Metro employees will get special training on how to handle sexual harassment as it's reported.

LAURIN: Because everybody's roles and responsibilities at Metro are different. The scenarios in which you might get a report are different if you're a bus operator than, say, if you were a station manager.

BINKOVITZ: Complaints are down 10 percent this year, but Laurin warns those numbers could reflect a tendency to under-report. At one point, she says, she might have just ignored harassment, too.

LAURIN: It was always my inclination to just shrug it off and say, oh well - you know - what do you expect? But now that I see how pervasive it is, I've started to realize that you have to take a stand, and you have to say something and report it.

BINKOVITZ: And if a rider does, Metro employees should be better prepared to address it. Leah Binkovitz, NPR News.

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