Posted on November 11, 2004

Uneasy Riders Sending A Message

Deidre Williams, Buffalo News, November 11, 2004

Take the bus. Ride the subway. Leave the driving to mass transit.

That’s what the new Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority’s radio and television commercials are highlighting to increase ridership.

But what the commercials miss — according to a group of downtown workers who ride the train together — are the many misbehaving and sometimes violent Buffalo high school students who also ride Metro Rail.

And the adults have their own suggestion: Put the kids in a separate rail car.

“I have to laugh every time I hear one of these commercials, saying, “Ride the NFTA. It’s great,’ “ said Vickie Moore, a county Medicaid employee who has been riding the train for a decade to and from her Town of Tonawanda home.

“Yeah, it’s great if you can go to work at 10 in the morning and leave at 6,” Moore said, referring to times when crowds of students aren’t on board.

Moore is one of a group of co-workers who commute — or used to commute — together on Metro Rail. They say they have witnessed fights and some have changed their work schedules to avoid the commotion. One woman stopped riding the train altogether after she was punched in the face by a student.

Many said they have noticed some improvement over the past few months, since problems and public complaints last spring prompted officials to unveil new efforts to maintain order.

NFTA officials attribute the improvements to:

More transit officers patrolling the system.

New brochures for students and teachers with information on rider etiquette and NFTA police and sensitivity training for students and the police.

An upgraded Metro Rail video surveillance system, which helped police solve a recent assault involving several boys at the Lafayette Square Station.

But despite the improvements, riding mass transit from 3 to 5 p.m. — when the students are dismissed from school — remains a generally unpleasant experience, the adults say.

“People are scared (when riding mass transit), and they should be because of all the noise and the kids,” said rider Barry Weinstein, an Erie County Department of Social Services employee.

Students don’t deny there are problems. Conflicts often start in the morning and build throughout the day. Because the students can’t fight in school, the issues get resolved on Metro.

“Somebody could be in a bad mood. You can look at them the wrong way or bump into them by accident, and they flip,” said Maggie Poletowski, a Lafayette High School senior and one of 200 students who went through two days of sensitivity training in May.

The training cost the NFTA $50,000. But the problems are costing the agency riders.

Kathy Ernst of Getzville doesn’t even take the train anymore. She hasn’t in months, since the rowdiness became too much for her to take.

“It’s costing me more to drive with parking and gas, and I don’t get home any earlier, but I don’t care,” said Ernst, who works for Medicaid. Marsha Doering, another Medicaid program worker, changed her 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. work hours about a year ago to avoid riding the trains at the same time as the students.

“It’s ridiculous people feel they have to do that, and I’m sure I’m not the only one,” she said.

Fear often prevents Doering or others from chastising the students.

Several years ago, Deberra Neri was punched in the face and knocked to the floor by a male student after coming to the aid of a girl who wouldn’t defend herself from a boy who had her in a headlock while hitting her in the face. “I’m a social worker. I speak up when I see something wrong,” Neri said. “But that was my final episode. My glasses went flying off. He cut my ear with a ring or something like that he had on.”

Neri filed a report, “but nothing came of it.” From that point on, she decided she would no longer take the train.

David M. Johnston, a county Social Services Department counselor, refuses to be chased off.

“I have actually gone over and pushed a button so the conductor can be made aware of what’s going on. I have personally said, “Will you please get some security on this train,’ “ Johnston said. “We have stopped entire trains until the NFTA supervisor got on.”

The commutes have gotten better recently, he said, largely due to the increased police presence. But the ride is still bad.

What could solve the problem?

The NFTA tried training, paying the Nation of Islam’s Dennis Muhammad $30,000 to teach students how to behave and another $20,000 to train the NFTA’s 83-member police force how to keep order without being abusive.

Students say the premise was good but the execution was faulty because neither NFTA police nor teachers nor administrators were involved in the sessions with the kids.

“They had good intentions, but how they went about it was wrong. If you want to spread the message, have a representative from everywhere — the teachers, students and police,” said Angela Carmichael, another Lafayette senior.

Muhammad said that’s how he has done it in other cities. But in this case, there was no funding for training school personnel. He said he does plan to get the students and officers together, perhaps within the next six months, for a follow-up.

But the adult riders have another idea: Designate one of the subway cars as a student car.

Almost every day, there’s enough available space that all the kids should be able to ride in one car, they said. That would allow the students to let off steam, while relieving some of the pressure on the adult passengers.

“My beef is with the NFTA because this is a very solvable problem,” Moore said.

Designating specific cars for students might sound good, said NFTA spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer, but segregating a segment of the population is not the message the NFTA wants to send.

“We’re trying to work with everybody for a safe and convenient ride,” he said, explaining that the NFTA favors other options.

For example, Hartmayer said, the video surveillance equipment along the subway route was expanded and upgraded. The cameras led to the arrest of three juveniles suspected of assaulting a 16-year-old youth in the Lafayette Square Station at about 4 p.m. Sept. 30.

In addition to the surveillance system, last spring the NFTA started assigning additional officers to patrol the system in the hours after school is dismissed. They’ve identified a suspect in an Oct. 1 assault on a kid at a bus stop.

The adults said they have noticed the change.

“Right after that (April 1 Buffalo News) article, there was a bigger (transit cop) presence,” said Weinstein. “Then it went down in the summer, but I’m seeing more NFTA cops this school season.”

That was by design, said NFTA Police Chief Joe Riga.

“Depending on the manpower level for that day, there could be one officer on each car,” he said.

And the NFTA worked with the Buffalo News’ Newspapers in Education program to produce brochures on rider etiquette and safety procedures. The free brochures will be mailed to all junior and senior high schools in Erie and Niagara counties, officials said.

“We’re not causing the problem,” Hartmayer said. “We’re trying to work with everybody so we can alleviate the problem.”