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Cleveland students seek change after being verbally assaulted on train

Venise Williams, left, and Nell'vonne Woods, right, reported to the CMSD Board of Education a frightening incident that happened to them on a Greater Cleveland RTA train.
Nell'vonne Woods
Venise Williams, left, and Nell'vonne Woods, right, reported to the CMSD Board of Education a frightening incident that happened to them on a Greater Cleveland RTA train.

Two Cleveland Metropolitan School District students told the CMSD Board of Education this week they want change after they say they were verbally and almost physically assaulted while riding a Greater Cleveland RTA train.

The students told the board they want CMSD and the RTA to do something to better protect students on and around public transit and while getting to school in general. The profile of this issue has also been elevated in recent weeks after a student was shot and killed outside of a bus stop by John Adams High School.

Nell’vonne Woods and Venise Williams, Cleveland High School for the Digital Arts students, played the sound of a video of the incident for the board during a public comment period Tuesday. The video, provided to Ideastream Public Media, shows a man on an RTA train screaming at the students, verbally harassing them and getting in their faces, repeatedly threatening them and calling them the “N” word (Woods, Venise and the man are all Black).

Williams said a bystander intervening prevented her from being assaulted.

“If that man didn’t say anything, I guarantee you he would have hit me,” she said.

The frightened teenagers said they spoke to the train’s conductor to try to get away from the man but ultimately ended up being left on the platform when the conductor closed the door on them with the man in question behind them on the platform. The students were able to get away and call the police, and the man was arrested by police but later let go because, Williams said, he didn’t physically attack them.

Williams said this wasn’t the first time she’s felt unsafe traveling to and from school. (she and Woods both take public transit to school daily.) She said she’s been harassed on numerous occasions by men while walking to school

"I want to say at least seven people within a month have asked me to get in their car repeatedly, as a woman going to school in the morning,” she said.

Leah Hudnall, a school board member, was in tears as she heard from the students.

“I believe someone owes you an apology,” she said. “And I want to give you that apology right now, because I was a student at Cleveland School of the Arts who was assaulted on the RTA going to and from school 20 years ago. And I have texts on my phone right now from classmates who are watching this and are crying because they, too, were assaulted in 2004, in 2005, 2006, 2007.”

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon asked the students to meet with Security Chief Lamont Dodson after their comments in order to get more information to share with the RTA.

“We absolutely want and need students to be safe coming to and leaving from school,” CMSD spokesperson Roseann Canfora said.

Woods said there are a couple of things that could help.

“I would really suggest that they have some kind of authority figure or like officer or whatever to be on public transportation like this, from the trains to the busses on every single one,” he said. “And if not that, make it safer. Like, there's got to be some kind of system for us to protect ourselves going to and from the school.”

Robert Fleig, a spokesperson for the Greater Cleveland RTA, said the transit system does have 82 police officers and announced last year a new squadof 10 unarmed “transit ambassadors” and several crisis intervention specialists, meant to provide assistance when riders have concerns.

"Over the past several years, GCRTA has invested heavily in security technology and surveillance systems to serve as a crime deterrent and investigative tool when situations arise," Fleig said. "In fact, every GCRTA bus has a minimum of eight cameras installed. Additionally, we have a robust camera system at GCRTA train stations, transit centers and HealthLine stations."

Woods and Williams said they did not see any police officers or transit ambassadors during the incident in question. They suggested the district allow students to carry mace or pocket knives with them when going to and from school, which could be deposited when entering buildings.

The school district does pay a significant amount of money – about $3.658 million this school year – for students to have bus passes to get to and from school from Monday to Friday.

Fleig said the RTA is committed to working closely with the school district on these issues.

"As we move forward, GCRTA transit police will continue to review our policing and safety strategy to increase visibility, deter crime, and assist in investigation resolution," Fleig said. "These efforts are intended to assist and enhance the overall safety of our customers, employees and the general public. Additionally, we will continue to collaborate with the CMSD and CPD police departments, and other local police departments to ensure community, and student safety."

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.