Lewd Comments to Assault: Metro Rider Complaints Describe Alleged Sex Harassment by Staff

News4 I-Team investigation also found complaints of harassment in the workplace

A bus driver blowing kisses at a 15-year-old girl. Another telling a female rider he wants to see her “naked.” A Metro worker inviting a woman inside his booth to charge her phone, then blocking its exit as he touches her breast and begins to masturbate. 

These are just some of the sexual misconduct allegations lodged against WMATA’s workforce in recent years, a News4 I-Team investigation found. 

For years, Metro has tried to fight sex harassment against passengers who ride the trains and buses, urging them to report unwanted advances. But an investigation by Scott MacFarlane and the News4 I-Team reveals the agency is struggling to police its own workers, with accusations of sexual misconduct lodged by passengers and fellow Metro employees.

The complaints come years into a high-profile public service campaign, launched in 2012, that’s intended to curb sexual harassment on the transit system. But documents obtained by News4 through an open records request reveal Metro is struggling to police the problem within its own ranks, with grievances coming from passengers and employees alike.

OnRaé Watkins, 32, said she was first harassed by a Metro worker as a college student at Howard University, when the same man insisted on hugging her and kissing her cheek each time she passed his booth. 

She said that, as a young woman, she didn’t know how to stop his behavior. But when another Metro worker persistently asked for her number years later, she took to Twitter to alert WMATA. 

Crude Commute: Passenger Complaints Alleging Harassment by Metrorail Staff

Metro passengers have filed at least 120 complaints about sexual harassment from WMATA rail and bus workers between 2016 and 2019. Click on the stations below to read some of the complaints alleging misconduct on Metrorail. (Scroll down)

Source: News4 I-Team via FOIA request to WMATA. Not all complaints are shown. Some have been lightly edited for clarity and redacted due to explicit language or to remove descriptions that could be used to identify individuals.
Credit: Anisa Holmes/NBCWashington

“You have this whole campaign to make our rides super safe for us and with no harassment … then the first thing I come face to face with is: ‘Can I get your number?’” she told News4. “It's inappropriate. I mean, that's just basic professionalism.”  

The roughly 120 sexual harassment complaints, filed by passengers between March 2016 and June 2019, range in severity, from horn-honking and lewd comments to allegations of assault. While each report did not indicate the sex of the complainant, many were filed by women. At least one was filed by a man.

In 2017, a bus passenger said her driver remarked: "Dam [sic] your [expletive] is big. Can I touch it?"

The following year, a woman reported a bus driver who asked her age and allegedly said: "You look like a little girl. Can I take you out?"

In 2019, a person called to say a bus driver “proceeded to simulate masturbation with his hand while looking directly at me.” 

And in the same year, a woman who said she was stranded one night outside the Dunn Loring-Merrifield station alleged a bus worker invited her into his booth to charge her phone. The complaint states that, once inside, he "touched her breast" without her consent, "unzipped his pants, pulled his penis out and started to masturbate." When he asked her to "follow him to the bathroom," she fled. 

WMATA declined several requests for an interview but in a statement said it “strives to handle every report of sexual harassment with the seriousness it deserves” and “any incident of harassment by a Metro employee is an especially egregious breach of trust.”

WMATA also declined to comment on individual cases of alleged misconduct but said five out of 30 complaints filed by passengers against employees last year resulted in disciplinary action.

The transit agency employs roughly 12,000 workers, with about a third in roles such as train operators or police officers that interact with the public. 

Internal Complaints

The I-Team found the problem isn’t isolated to passengers. Several women who currently or previously worked for WMATA described to News4 what one called a “culture of harassment.”

Documents obtained by the I-Team through a records request show more than 50 internal complaints about sexual harassment were filed with WMATA’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity since 2015, but less than half were found to have probable cause. The records do not indicate the outcome of each case.

Linda Mercer, a former bus driver who left Metro last year, said the number of complaints filed with the internal office is low compared to what many employees experience. She said many employees don’t report harassment out of fear of retaliation and that they won’t be taken seriously.

"Metro's motto is: ‘See something, say something.’ But really, it means: ‘See something and say nothing,’” Mercer said. 

Indeed, News4 interviewed multiple women employed by the transit system who declined to speak publicly about their experiences because of fear of retaliation or losing their job.

Former bus driver Khadijah Able says her career with Metro was upended because of sexual harassment. She said the problems began just a few months on the job in 2012, when a supervisor suggested he would overlook a minor bus accident in exchange for sexual favors. 

"The next thing he said to me, ‘You look like you taste good.’ And my eyes went kind like, what? And I knew what he was talking about,” she said. 

She also alleges another male supervisor repeatedly propositioned her, asking for “hook-ups” and “threesomes.”

Now she’s suing WMATA for sex discrimination and retaliation, claiming she was fired in 2018 for reporting that supervisor’s behavior. 

WMATA doesn't comment on pending litigation, but in legal filings said none of Able’s claims of harassment “were sufficiently severe or pervasive to rise to the level of a retaliatory or hostile work environment.” 

In the filings, Metro also said she didn’t report the instances of harassment “at the time they occurred;” that it investigated the matter once she did and that she was justifiably terminated “for taking leave without authorization.”

Able said, soon after her hiring, a training instructor warned her she would likely face sexual harassment during her career at the agency. 

“But I never believed it until it happened and I never wanted to believe it,” she said. “But it was true.” 

Calls for Transparency

Montgomery County Councilman Tom Hucker, chairman of the transportation and environment committee that oversees WMATA, said the complaints obtained by News4 likely represent a “tiny fraction of actual incidents,” as most people don’t report episodes of harassment. 

“If you have sexual harassment going on at Metro, that’s something they have to have no tolerance for,” Hucker said. “The idea there’s WMATA employees harassing passengers themselves is a real problem.”

He said he wants greater transparency from the transit agency about how often complaints about harassment from Metro workers — filed by passengers or employees — result in disciplinary action. 

News4 requested disciplinary numbers arising from complaints but was not provided complete information. 

“I want to know what’s worthy of discipline in their minds and what’s not, where that line is,” Hucker said. 

Policy Changes

In its statement to News4, WMATA said it’s making changes to how complaints are fielded and how employees are trained.

Previously, complaints were sent to the management team responsible for the employee in question, but after identifying “inadequacies in our training and response” in 2018, Metro leadership created a central office within its Office of Equal Employment Opportunity to investigate reports. 

WMATA said that while new hires are trained on the company’s anti-harassment policy, starting this year, all employees will be required to take a new web-based anti-harassment training at least every two years.

The transit agency also touted its anti-harassment campaign as helping encourage passengers to report incidents. 

In 2018, a Metro survey on sexual harassment found half of victims said they didn't report the abuse. That’s an improvement from 77 percent in a similar 2016 survey.

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