Bus driver’s harrowing experience shows SEPTA struggles to track how often riders sexually harass or assault employees

Overall “incidents of disrespect” against transit workers appear to be dropping, and the agency is working to find solutions.

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Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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Note: This story includes a description of sexual harassment. Skip the second section if you would prefer not to read details.

Iman Peoples doesn’t leave the house much. At least, not for the last year and a half.

Before December 2020, she was a social butterfly. But now her four walls in Pennsauken, New Jersey, feel safer than anywhere in the outside world. That’s how she’s felt ever since she was sexually harassed while driving a SEPTA bus in South Philadelphia.

“It really traumatized me,” said Peoples, who’s 32 years old. “I try not to go out the door if I can help it. I have anxiety really bad, and because of it I’m a homebody.”

Public-facing SEPTA employees, like bus drivers and subway cashiers, have long endured verbal and physical threats from riders. It got worse with the pandemic in 2020, when the number of “incidents of disrespect,” as the transit agency calls them, nearly quadrupled.

Sexual harassment or assault seems less common, according to SEPTA data. But it’s hard to tell, because the authority doesn’t track that as a category — and some say the record-keeping is flawed. Peoples’s own incident doesn’t appear to be included.

Overall incidents of disrespect against SEPTA employees dropped 20% in 2021, per records Billy Penn obtained via a Right to Know request. But there are still about one and a half times as many as before the pandemic. This phenomenon underscores worries about safety on Philly’s public transit system.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in committees to get to the root cause of some of these issues,” said Scott Sauer, SEPTA’s chief operating officer. “We’re trying to figure out what ways we could help our operators de-escalate and protect themselves if the need arose.”

For Peoples, the experience has been nearly impossible to shake. She’s seen a psychiatrist and a therapist. A year and a half later, she still needs a prescription to sleep. When she has to leave the house, she brings a taser, pepper spray and a pocket knife.

“I feel like I need to protect myself,” Peoples said. “I still feel the same way as when this first happened to me. It’s the same as it was when I first saw him.”

Harassed on the night shift

It happened to Peoples while she was working at night.

The six-year SEPTA employee was driving the Route 79 bus east on Snyder Avenue, when she said a man boarded at 24th Street. He told Peoples he didn’t have any money for the fare, and she said that was OK, and told him to take a seat. (That’s SEPTA’s policy — operators are told to “check and request” payment, but not to demand it or kick riders off if they don’t have it.)

It was around 4 a.m., and Peoples was alone on the bus.

“He looked back and saw nobody on the bus, and he stood there for a little bit,” Then, Peoples said, the man started asking inappropriate questions. When she gets home from work, does she smoke? Does she take a shower? Does she touch herself?

He took off his pants and started to masturbate in her face — with only a clear plastic barrier between them.

“I started driving erratically, because he was really just doing this in my face,” Peoples said. “I started to drive faster, and he walked over to spit on me. I was like, ‘What are you doing?'”

Peoples was afraid to pull over, scared that if the bus stopped moving he’d try to get behind the barrier and touch her. She remembers accidentally running a red light. She still feels bad about that.

As she approached 16th and Snyder, Peoples saw a familiar passenger — a regular who boards there at the same time every day. She pulled over, and the sight of another rider seemed to scare the man off. After eight blocks of harassment, Peoples said the man finally got off the bus and fled.

Peoples called SEPTA’s Transit Police, who sent over an officer. She filed multiple reports with SEPTA, which were obtained and reviewed by Billy Penn.

Her reporting experience wasn’t great. Peoples said only one officer showed up to the scene — even though it’s policy to dispatch three units to incidents like this, according to former SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III. (In a move thought to have been forced, Nestel retired this week after a decade in his position.)

Peoples said the officer told her he couldn’t leave the scene to look for the suspect, but Nestel told Billy Penn that even if he was the only officer there, that shouldn’t have stopped him.

After the fact, Peoples said SEPTA provided her with workman’s compensation and a therapist. Still, she’s left with constant anxiety, and she can’t imagine getting back on a bus. She’s hoping to get a different job at SEPTA, like a behind-the-scenes gig inside a bus depot.

“That’s still my goal,” Peoples said. “I’m waiting to see if they will change my job, so I can be not so close working with the public.”

Barriers to help prevent physical assaults

SEPTA data obtained by Billy Penn shows the rate of harassment and assault against employees has started to slow.

From January through October 2021, there were 312 incidents on buses and trolleys — like threatening, spitting or throwing food on SEPTA employees. That’s an 18% drop from 382 incidents during the same time period in 2020, but still 150% more than the 124 total incidents in 2019.

“One thing that has spiked is what we term the ‘incidents of disrespect,'” said Sauer, the COO. “Throwing, spitting, verbal stuff.”

SEPTA has tried to address these problems. A committee formed in 2016 meets monthly to review every incident and brainstorm solutions, Sauer said. That’s where the idea originated to place clear barriers in front of bus drivers. These are now installed on all SEPTA buses and 75% of trolleys, per SEPTA spokesperson John Golden. Buses are also equipped with 10 security cameras each.

That barrier likely protected Peoples from a physical assault.

“Barriers have helped a lot in deterring physical encounters,” Sauer said. “Every physical assault is bad. We’d rather it be zero, but we try to get them as low as possible.”

It’s an uphill battle. SEPTA Transit Police are chronically understaffed, and the system is plagued with pervasive societal challenges like homelessness and drug use. Last year, SEPTA kickstarted an initiative that would deploy 57 outreach workers in the subway system.

When someone harasses or assaults a SEPTA employee, the original record of the incident is stored at the nearest bus or rail depot. There are about 30 of those locations, Sauer said, and the records are stored as hard copies.

There is just one digitized version of these records: the spreadsheet that is reviewed each month by the safety committee.

Record-keeping as a ‘workplace safety issue’

Incidents on SEPTA’s spreadsheet are divided into categories, but there is no category for sexual harassment or assault — because that kind of incident is rare, per COO Sauer.

“It does happen. I’d say a few times a year we get a call on that from either employees in the subway, or cashiers, something like that,” he said. “I would say at this point, we had not considered it because it was so infrequent.”

Out of 1,219 total incidents against SEPTA employees from January 2015 through October 2021, 13 of the incidents (1%) contained language that appeared to indicate a sexual harassment or assault — either because they mentioned specific body parts or because they were explicitly sexual.

Like in September of 2019, when an “operator reports they were sexually assaulted (groped) on the bus by a male passenger,” at 6 p.m. on the Route 50 bus.

Or in May of 2020, around 11 a.m. on the Route 124 bus. That SEPTA report reads: “Operator reports [pedestrian] fondled her; contact made to buttocks. SPD Office James responded.”

Rare as these incidents may seem, experts say you can’t truly know if a problem is uncommon if you aren’t documenting it well.

“You can look at this as a workplace safety issue,” said Audrey Roofeh, CEO of Mariana Strategies, a consulting firm focused on creating inclusive workplaces. “Record-keeping is very important when it comes to understanding the extent and the nature of sexual and other kinds of assault.”

It also appears that SEPTA’s records may be incomplete — or at least have the potential to miss incidents. Despite multiple types of official record of the harassment against Peoples reviewed by Billy Penn, her December 2020 incident is not listed on the spreadsheet.

“I can’t explain why that particular incident might be missing,” Sauer said. “How it could’ve been depends on the timeliness of the report, who had the report and when. A lot of things could go into that.”

The missing record feels like a red flag to Roofeh, the consultant.

“That’s absolutely a problem, for that data to have somehow not been included,” Roofeh said. “What could happen is that the precautions that could help keep them safe may not be in place. It begs the question, is this an issue of importance to the employer?”

Hearing that her own well-documented incident isn’t included in SEPTA’s data, Peoples feels pessimistic.

“They need to find ways to protect us while we’re on the bus, especially when you have women working overnight by themselves,” she said. “We’re supposed to be OK with being attacked, being assaulted, because we signed up for the job. No one goes to work wanting to be hurt.”

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