A rape on a SEPTA train forced a conversation about how to disrupt assault. Here’s what experts say you should do

A transit security officer works on the platform of the Girard stop of the Market Frankford El train on July 15, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A transit security officer works on the platform of the Girard stop of the Market Frankford El train on July 15, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

After a rape on a SEPTA train made national headlines, Toby Fraser felt himself asking a lot of questions.

Fraser manages educational programming for Philadelphia’s Lutheran Settlement House and organizes events for a violence prevention initiative that works with men and people who identify as masculine.

Immediately, he dove into a rabbit hole of media coverage of the sexual assault, all the while watching his phone blow up with texts from horrified coworkers and others he knows from his work.

It felt like “a rollercoaster,” he said.

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“I was really horrified, really sad, and pretty angry at those bystanders,” who he initially believed were filming the incident for fun, Fraser recalled.

The Philadelphia man woke up in the middle of the night, stuck on thinking about the work that needed to to get more masculine people off of the sidelines and into action against gender violence, in situations like what happened on the El train.

But last Thursday when Fraser Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said that SEPTA police had embellished a narrative about bystanders’ inaction on the train, Fraser was not surprised.

“It’s really unsurprising to hear that the police would try and play up a narrative of regular people being not just unable to help, but unwilling to help,” said Fraser, who organizes bystander awareness training, and facilitated conversations last year around defunding the police and supporting domestic violence victims.

Fraser said perpetuating the idea that people are unwilling to help, “feeds into this continuous narrative, that is not true, that the only people who can keep us safe from roving gangs of rapists and murderers are the police.”

Following Stollsteimer’s comments disputing the narrative that people had watched the assault and filmed for their own gratification without intervening, many people took to social media to discuss the parallels between the reporting that initially came out and the false reporting that surrounded the 1964 murder of a young womaned named Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York.

“For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens,” the New York Times reported in an unusually salacious story, pinned to the account of a police inspector. The story went viral before the term viral existed and shaped an entire generation of research and cultural conversation.

Fraser said that understanding and cultural narrative can be harmful and that bystanders can and do take action.

Yet how exactly to respond when seeing something that appears to be nonconsensual sexual violence can be complex.

Kelly Erickson trains people in bystander intervention for Hollaback, a national organization that teaches people how to disrupt violence and harassment.

“There are some common reasons why people don’t act,” she said, “and the first being, they just don’t know what to do, and they’re maybe afraid that they’ll make things worse by intervening.”

Erickson said to also consider the bystander effect, which essentially means, the more people that are around and are not stepping in to help, the less likely anyone is to step in.

“I think most people want to help,” she noted, “but there are these things that come up that give them pause.”

She said people can take simple actions to interrupt the violence.

“You can ask a clarifying question, like ‘woah woah what’s going on here?’ or ‘hey when you said this, what did you mean by that?’” Erickson said. “And then you’ll know if you need to step in with another intervention or perhaps it wasn’t what you thought it was. It also alerts others. When someone does something, other people are listening.”

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Once other bystanders notice action, it starts to build a support system, it might encourage someone else to have the back of the person who is trying to intervene.

Often intervention does not look like direct confrontation. Erickson pointed to the five D’s of bystander intervention: distract, delegate, document, delay, and direct.

5 tips for bystander intervention

The five Ds are not a linear progression.They are tools to have in one’s toolbox for emergencies.

  • Distract: Creating a distraction to de-escalate the situation, such as dropping your coffee or sounding an alarm. “You could tell yourself a joke and bust out in laughter. Erickson said this one is great for people who are comfortable being a fool in public.
  • Delegate: Finding someone else to help, maybe even the person next to you. You start to create a bubble of safety around you and around that situation by getting others to help.
  • Document: Creating documentation of the incident and then giving it to the person who was harassed. If the violence is ongoing, make sure to get the person being harassed/assaulted help before documenting the harassment. The victim should decide what to do with the documentation or how to tell their story.
  • Delay: Checking in on the person who experienced harassment and ask them what they need.
  • Direct: Setting a boundary with the person doing the harassing, and then turning your attention to the person being harassed. If you find that stepping in directly would cause an outcome that would escalate the situation, then try something else.

But intervening is not always the safest thing to do for bystanders, “you have to trust your assessment of the situation,” said Philadelphia’s Women in Transition Executive Director Corinne Lagermasini. WIT organizes bystander intervention trainings, counseling, advocacy and peer support groups for sexual assault survivors.

“We have evolved our curriculum now, we used to say always call 911, and now we say, if you feel like it’s the right thing to do, call 911,” said Lagermasini.

For moments when bystanders or victims feel comfortable calling the police, SEPTA encourages riders to call 9-1-1.

There is also an emergency button on all SEPTA cars that passengers can speak into.

Riders can use the SEPTA transit watch app on their phone, which allows people to report incidents anonymously and text directly with SEPTA dispatchers.

SEPTA has provided instructions for the emergency button and the SEPTA transit watch application.

More resources in Philadelphia:

Women Organizing Against Rape (WOAR) has a 24/hour hotline for sexual assault victims.

  • 215-985-3333 (call or text)

Women Against Abuse: provides 24-hour emergency safe havens and free services to survivors of all gender identities and their children who are victims of domestic violence for up to 90 days.

  • For non emergencies: 215-386-1280

Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline: 24/7 hotline answered in coalition with four Domestic Violence Agencies in Philadelphia – Congreso de Latinas Unidos, Lutheran Settlement House, Women Against Abuse, and Women in Transition.

  • 866-723-3014

Women in Transition: provides telephone counseling from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday for assault victims. WIT also organizes self defense training for people of all genders.

  • Lifeline: 215-751-1111

Philly Truce phone app: The app connects civilians with trained mediators who can offer guidance on resolving conflict (they are growing to help witnesses or survivors of sexual violence)

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