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Billy Penn investigation exposes SEPTA’s failure to track sex assault, harassment against workers

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  1. Freedom of Information
Without legal support from an RCFP attorney, Billy Penn reporter Michaela Winberg said, “The story wouldn’t have happened.”
Photo of SEPTA train and station sign at night
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA, is the primary transit provider in the Philadelphia region and one of the largest transit agencies in the country. (Photo by Elizabeth K. Joseph)

In July, the nonprofit news outlet Billy Penn published an investigation about reports of assaults and harassment targeting bus drivers, subway cashiers and other public-facing employees of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the Philadelphia region’s primary public transit provider.

Using records Reporters Committee attorneys helped Billy Penn obtain from SEPTA, reporter Michaela Winberg revealed the agency’s failure to track incidents of sexual assault and harassment, making it difficult for officials to better understand and address the problem. She also showed that other incidents of assault and harassment targeting SEPTA employees had been steadily increasing years before they spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The investigation came out the same week that SEPTA’s police chief abruptly retired, ending a tenure that saw crime rates rise even as ridership declined. But as Winberg and her editor explained, this data-driven accountability reporting would have never been published if not for the free legal support provided by Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Pennsylvania.

“Without her help, we simply would not have had the data,” Winberg said. “The story wouldn’t have happened.”

“It’s only thanks to the help of RCFP and Paula that we got this data,” added Danya Henninger, editor and director at Billy Penn, a project of Philadelphia NPR-affiliate WHYY. “RCFP is making journalism possible.”

The hunt for data

Winberg’s story was born out of her earlier reporting on the challenges SEPTA employees faced during the height of the pandemic. In a piece published in February 2021, she described verbal and physical threats against bus drivers and other SEPTA workers as they tried to enforce mask mandates and deal with passengers who had become increasingly unruly.

That reporting prompted a SEPTA bus driver to reach out to Winberg about sexual harassment she had experienced on the job. The worker’s story made Winberg curious: How often do employees at SEPTA face sexual assault or harassment?

To find out, she submitted a public records request to the transit agency under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law in March 2021. But in response to her request for a variety of sexual assault and harassment records dating back to 2016, SEPTA handed over “barely anything,” Winberg recalled.

Winberg said agency officials told her they denied the vast majority of her request in part because the records would be too burdensome to access. The incident reports, according to the agency, were handwritten and stored in bus depots across the region.

To Winberg, it didn’t seem like a legitimate reason for an agency to withhold public records, but she consulted a colleague well-versed in public records requests for a gut check. His advice: Contact Burke at the Reporters Committee. “She’s amazing,” Winberg recalled him saying.

“RCFP is making journalism possible.” — Danya Henninger, editor and director, Billy Penn

When she followed her colleague’s advice, Burke encouraged Winberg to appeal the agency’s rejection to Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records. She did so with Burke’s legal support, and nearly two months after challenging the agency’s decision, the OOR largely sided with the reporter, ordering SEPTA to turn over more records.

Last August, however, SEPTA appealed to the Commonwealth Court. Fortunately, Burke helped Winberg and Billy Penn avoid a long, drawn-out court battle. Combining her legal skills and journalism background, Burke steered the dispute toward a court mediation program intended to resolve legal disputes more quickly and amicably.

Burke suggested focusing their negotiation with SEPTA through the lens of the story Winberg hoped to report, rather than through specific types of agency records. “I remember her asking, ‘What do you need most? Even if they can’t give us exactly what we asked for, what kind of data would also answer that question in this compromise that we’re making?’” Winberg recalled Burke saying. “It was very grounded in the story I was trying to tell.”

Eventually, Burke’s advice led SEPTA officials to identify a spreadsheet that contained most of the information Winberg was looking for, including descriptions of assault and harassment incidents involving agency employees, as well as where and when they happened. While there is no category in the spreadsheet for sexual assault or harassment — because, as SEPTA officials told Billy Penn, such incidents are rare — Winberg was able to manually analyze the incident descriptions to determine which ones may be sexual in nature.

Key findings

The data made it possible for Winberg to draw some important conclusions in her investigation. The biggest takeaway, she says: SEPTA officials “don’t really understand the problem” of sexual assault and harassment targeting their employees.

Not only is their data poorly kept, she reported, it also appears to be incomplete. While her analysis identified 13 sex-related incidents from January 2015 through October 2021, the sexual harassment incident involving the bus driver whose story prompted Winberg’s records request was not included in the spreadsheet, even though the driver had extensively documented the incident.

The investigation’s conclusions went beyond the specific issue of sexual assault and harassment. Based on the data SEPTA turned over, Winberg was able to show that other kinds of assault and harassment against transit employees had been rising steadily in the years leading up to the huge spike in 2020.

With a new police chief soon to take over at SEPTA, Henninger says the investigation could prompt the agency to make some necessary improvements.

“I hope that one of the impacts of this reporting will be that they start keeping better records,” Henninger said. “The story of how they kept this data is a great example of why it needs to be reformed.”

Winberg says the fight to access the data that made the investigation possible also offers an important lesson for reporters like her: Don’t be afraid to seek free legal support from Reporters Committee attorneys when you’re trying to obtain records from a government agency.

“Among journalists, sometimes there is the tendency or desire to pretend like you know everything about everything, including the records request process. And the reality at least for me — and I know this is true for some of my colleagues — is that sometimes you don’t understand how to go through these sometimes very complex legal proceedings by yourself,” Winberg said.

“Knowing that there’s free help that you can access kind of just builds up your confidence against these big institutions,” she added. “It’s such a huge help.”

Related

Earlier this year, Reporters Committee attorneys successfully litigated a separate public records case involving SEPTA on behalf of The Philadelphia Inquirer and reporter Juliana Reyes. To learn more about Reyes’s fight to access separation agreements for agency executives, check out her first-person story about the case.


The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.

Featured photo by Elizabeth K. Joseph, via Flickr