Just 2 weeks after advocates and members of the public testified about sexual harassment to a DC Council oversight hearing, WMATA has taken concrete steps to address the problem.
WMATA officials invited representatives from Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS)/Holla Back DC! to a meeting on the issue. We had low expectations going into the meeting because in the preceding days, WMATA released statements like, “one person’s harassment is another person’s flirting” and gave the impression that they thought sexual offenses weren’t a big deal.
Directly after the hearing, a top WMATA official talked to us in the hallway and said that the First Amendment protects remarks including verbal sexual harassment. We anticipated having to spend time explaining how sexual harassment was a problem and why they should care about it. But we didn’t.
Instead, CASS co-founder Chai Shenoy and board members Ben Merrion and I listened to, and were pleasantly surprised by, what they had to say.
In the 2 weeks since the hearing, WMATA had formed an internal task force consisting of about 10 people, including communications director Lynn Bowersox, spokesperson Dan Stessel, government relations director Regina Sullivan, and police chief Michael Taborn. They invited us to join the task force as well.
We were pleased to hear they wanted to implement all of our recommendations. They were eager for more feedback from us. They also were sincere, polite, and appreciative for bringing this issue to their attention and offering suggestions.
Our first recommendation was for WMATA to do a better job tracking sexual harassment incidents and to allow people to report verbal sexual harassment. In response, they launched both a new email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and an online portal where people can easily report incidents. You can also continue to call Metro Transit Police at 202-962-2121.
For the first time, they are including verbal harassment on the list of crimes people can report, and they are encouraging people to submit photos of their harassers if they can take one safely. They will create quarterly reports detailing incidents. Once WMATA has a better sense of the amount, type, and locations of incidents, they will be better able to perform targeted prevention.
Our second recommendation was a public service announcement campaign to inform people how and what they can report. To implement this recommendation, WMATA turned to their transit counterparts in Boston, a city which has a successful anti-sexual harassment PSA campaign.
We learned that Boston is willing to let DC adapt their campaign as soon as they want. WMATA provided us with copies of the campaign, and over this past weekend we went through the different PSA options and offered feedback. WMATA hopes to roll out the campaign as early as the first week of April, in the spirit of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Our third recommendation was better training for employees so that when people report incidents, employees respond appropriately. WMATA officials plan to draft training materials soon and will let CASS review it to provide feedback. And, on Friday, CEO Richard Sarles wrote in his regular newsletter to the 11,000 employees at WMATA about the seriousness of sexual harassment and assault on the Metro.
We know government agencies, including WMATA, are notoriously slow at changing and responding to complaints, and it is both surprising and commendable to see them move so quickly on implementing changes. We also know they took action so fast thanks to the outpouring of stories and supportive comments from people who emailed, tweeted, blogged, and wrote comments on articles, including the article here about the Metro oversight hearing.
I want to thank everyone who spoke out about this on and off-line. You helped make this happen.
WMATA wants more feedback and constructive suggestions about what else they can do. Several WMATA staff members will join CASS’s “The REAL Metro Forum” event on Thursday, March 22, 5:30 pm at AAUW, 1111 16th Street NW. Members of the public are welcome to attend this free event, which is one of 8 events occurring in DC (PDF) for International Anti-Street Harassment Week.
So please come, voice your opinion, and be part of the exciting and fast-moving efforts to end sexual harassment on the Metro system.