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Group to tell D.C. Council committee about ‘street harassment’ on Metro

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A man walks up to a woman on a Metro train and tells her she looks good in that skirt.

Is that an insult, sexual harassment or a compliment?

A grass-roots group says it’s a form of “street harassment” that has become all too common throughout the transit network.

Members of Collective Action for Safe Spaces/Holla Back DC said they will speak about sexual harassment Wednesday before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Government Operations. Metro General Manager Richard Sarles and some of his senior staff are expected to testify on the transit agency’s performance over the past year. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is also on the Metro board, heads the committee.

Collective Action, according to its Web site, fights “street harassment in America’s capital by empowering Washingtonians to speak out against gender-based sexual harassment and assault.”

Chai Shenoy, co-founder of Collective Action, said her group is worried about the stories it receives and posts on its Web site about sexual harassment on
buses and trains and at Metro stops.

The group, which has been around since 2009, was started as an online forum where people could submit their accounts of public sexual harassment and assault incidents. It has eight board members, plus three volunteer staffers and several dozen volunteers, Shenoy said.

She helped start the group after a passenger exposed himself to her while she was on a nearly empty rail car on the Red Line one weekend.

“I didn’t know what to do and feared for my safety,” she said. “I wanted to do something and share my experience with others.”

Shenoy said she has called and e-mailed Metro about some of the incidents that have been reported to the Web site but has received only a generic e-mail response.

“We’re shocked about how much sexual harassment occurs,” Shenoy said.

Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik said his department takes reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents seriously. He says the transit police have have not seen an increase in reports of indecent exposure, rape or other types of sexual assaults.

According to Metro, 84 cases involving sexual offenses were reported to Transit Police last year. They included one rape and 40 cases of indecent exposure or other sexual acts. Of the 40, 12 involved arrests.

Officials said Metro does not track sexual harassment complaints. But Pavlik said passengers who think that they have been sexually harassed should report the incident to Transit Police. Officers receive sensitivity training in handling such complaints, he said.

He cautioned, however, that a variety of behaviors could be considered harassment.

“Someone telling another person: ‘You look good. Can I have your phone number?’ — you may not like it, but I can’t arrest the person,” Pavlik said.

Reports including sexual assault and indecent exposure are investigated, he said.

Last year, Transit Police received reports of two men touching passengers and allegedly masturbating on the Orange and Red lines.

A man was arrested in the Red Line case. Another man was arrested in the incidents on the Orange Line and underwent a mental-health evaluation, police said.

Shenoy said Collective Action wants to testify before the D.C Council so that officials “take sexual harassment seriously.”

The group also is pushing for Metro employees to receive training on dealing with passengers who report sexual harassment and assaults and for more training for Transit Police officers.

Shenoy said the group also wants to see Metro undertake a public service campaign to educate people on such issues, similar to its “See Something, Say Something” anti-terrorism campaign.

“Metro can do a lot more than it has done, which to this date and to my knowledge is very little,” Shenoy said.

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