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Women's Group Targets Harassment On Metro

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D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser presided over a D.C. Council committee hearing yesterday that included several accounts from women who were harassed while riding Metro. 
Mallory Noe-Payne
D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser presided over a D.C. Council committee hearing yesterday that included several accounts from women who were harassed while riding Metro. 

A group dedicated to fighting sexual harassment in public says Metro is not doing enough to tackle the problem.

Several women testified before the D.C. Council Wednesday to tell their stories. For some, the sexual harassment happened on the bus, for others, it took place on the train. Sometimes it involved a Metro employee not doing anything, other times the alleged harasser was a Metro employee.

Pascale Leon's encounter happened at the Farragut North Metro station in downtown D.C. A guy out of nowhere came up and groped her. "When I went to report it to the Metro attendant, I was kind of frantic," says Leon. "He said 'well that girl was grabbed by the same guy,' and he kind of laughed at it." 

Leon eventually found a website devoted to documenting cases of public sexual harassment and assault. The group behind the online site -- the Collective Action for Safe Spaces -- was started by Chai Shenoy after her own experience with sexual harassment on the Metro.

Shenoy wants three things from the transit agency.

"One is to collect data of all these different types of sexual harassment and assaults that's happening on the public transit systems," she says. "We are also asking for a public service campaign, and the third thing is for the employees to get more training on sexual harassment."

Metro General Manager Richard Sarles also testified. He called the women's accounts "deeply disturbing" and apologized for the incidents involving Metro employees.

Up to this point, Sarles added most of the sexual harassment training has been focused on worker-to-worker relations. Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn defended his agency's approach to sexual harassment, saying it's not easy to arrest people for saying things.

"If they are just saying 'you look good,' that is separate and distinct from crime in D.C. code," Taborn said. "If someone says someone is leering at them  -- that too is not a crime,” says Taborn. But Taborn added if people experience harassment, they should immediately tell a transit officer.

But Ben Merrion, with the Collective Action for Safe Space disagreed with Taborn, and says there’s a clear difference between flirting and harassment.

“When someone asks me for a phone number, that’s not harassment," says Merrion. "But when they keep at it and the person feels uncomfortable and that person starts following that person, that’s when it becomes harassment and makes the other person feel unsafe. “

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, who chaired the hearing, told Taborn that the transit police should not dismiss these complaints.

"People have to be taken seriously," says Bowser. "When they get a call, they know they will be treated respectfully -- even if the answer is, 'I can't arrest that person.'"

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