Izabella León at the downtown Santa Cruz Metro terminal.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

I’m 16 and got sexually harassed on the Santa Cruz Metro — why aren’t there safeguards to protect me?

Izabella León, 16, was sexually harassed on a Santa Cruz Metro bus during her regular commute between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. No one stepped in to help her, and she is frustrated by the lack of safety measures in place for youth and women. “Metro wants more youths like me to ride the bus,” she writes. “It has even put in ‘Youth Cruz Free,’ which lets us ride for free. But it has little in place to make sure we are safe — and to protect us when we are not.”

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On July 21, I was sexually harassed at a Santa Cruz Metro bus station.

No one saw or came to my defense. I was alone and scared, and now, I’m angry.

Metro wants more youths like me to ride the bus. It has even put in “Youth Cruz Free,” which lets us ride for free. But it has little in place to make sure we are safe — and to protect us when we are not.

That is not OK.

I am a 16-year-old high school student and I take the bus five days a week from my house in Watsonville to downtown Santa Cruz for an internship at Lookout. I want to feel I can do this — that I can have the same chances as kids whose families have cars and parents available to drive them. That’s what public transportation is supposed to do.

I didn’t see the harassment coming. It was 6 p.m., and I had just had a fun day seeing “Barbie and discussing it with colleagues for a Lookout article. I was waiting for the bus in my bright pink shirt, hair in braids with pink hair clips, when a man approached me for directions.

I told him I couldn’t help, since I don’t live in the area, but he wouldn’t go away. He kept staring, then he started talking. I could smell substances on him; he was wobbling, and he took too much interest in me.

I started to feel a creepy vibe from him. I just knew he was going to say something gross to me or even grab me.

Panic took over my body as my chest grew tighter. I’ve sadly had men say creepy things to me before, but that doesn’t make each time any less scary. I hoped and prayed that maybe my instincts were wrong this time, that I misjudged him. But then he said it.

“You look very sexy, baby girl. How about I take you home so that we can have some fun.”

I felt sick. Why can’t women like me be left alone and not be harassed? What gave him the right to say that to me?

His words grew increasingly vulgar, as he described disgusting sexual scenarios.

I just wanted to cry. I wanted to see my mom. I kept telling myself, “You’ve dealt with people like him before, just ignore him.”

But should I have to deal with this? Why can’t I feel safe on public transportation?

My friends have a simple answer: Avoid the bus

Many of my friends are scared to ride the bus.

They claim public transportation in Santa Cruz County is “unsafe” for young women.

I never understood this because of the benefits the bus gives me. It provides affordable transportation, cuts down on carbon dioxide emissions, and takes me from home to work. OK. It does take me more than an hour each way. But it’s worth it.

Izabella León reflected in a Santa Cruz Metro bus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Now I am wondering if the pros are overshadowed by the uncertainty I often feel when riding alone.

I looked up the statistics and found a 2020 report showing 63% of female students at San Jose State University had experienced some form of sexual harassment on public transit.

Here’s something else: Most don’t report the crime to authorities.

That might be because reporting these crimes is not simple. I went to the Metro website to try to report what happened to me and found no obvious way to do so. There is a way to contact customer service and report a bad driver or employee, but not harassment.

Filing a police report seems like a waste of time. It takes forever, and the one time I did complain about an incident, no one ever called me back.

Metro’s policies say sexual harassment of any kind is “strictly prohibited.”

But there is no enforcement. No one to help youths like me who get harassed or are fearful.

Santa Cruz Metro has been around since 1968. I would think by now there would be a policy in place or something to indicate an awareness of harassment and the proper protocols. But when I searched the site using the term “sexual harassment,” I got zero results.

We live in the post #MeToo era, and yet there was nothing.

No policies, no statistics, and no acknowledgement. Nothing.

I wanted to hear what a representative of Metro thinks about the issue. So Lookout reporter Max Chun and I asked Margo Ross, the chief operating officer, a couple of questions about its reporting system.

Ross says the agency does have a reporting system but she admits that it is “not as sophisticated as you might think.”

The system logs the complainant’s name and the details of their complaint, but Ross says there is currently no data or statistics on the types of complaints filed. “I can honestly say, I haven’t seen [any complaints] in the three years that I’ve been here,” she said, “but we certainly would investigate it.”

While her offer to investigate offers some comfort, it also feels hollow. Why do I have to ask for this? Why is Metro not taking this seriously? No database?

Other cities at the very least are recognizing the issue and taking action. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has been developing the Equity Safety Initiative to ensure rider safety, address gender violence and to “improve mechanisms for reporting gender-based safety issues.”

What about Santa Cruz?

Finding friendship in fear

When I got on the bus after the harassment, I began to cry.

Sitting alone in a bus full of strangers after experiencing disgusting verbal harassment is terrifying. I felt shaken, raw, vulnerable. I wanted to curl up under a blanket, not sit next to yet another stranger.

I looked around and I saw another girl my age, and I asked her if I could sit with her.

I was crying as I sat and we started talking. She was kind. A good listener. She also told me about her experiences on the bus, with older men trying to “get her” and how over time, she “got used” to their behavior.

Got used to it?

An image from story Izabella León posted to Instagram after she was harassed on a Santa Cruz Metro bus
An image from the story Izabella León posted to Instagram after she was harassed on a Santa Cruz Metro bus in July.
(Via Izabella León )

How can I get used to creepy older men going at me just because I’m young and female? I don’t want to constantly worry about my safety and carry pepper spray around.

Obviously, not all older men are dangers. And I don’t want to avoid talking to all strangers out of fear. I don’t want to be closed off, perceived as rude.

And when I do complain — about a remark, an off-color joke, a tingling sense that the person is not right, that more is coming — will anyone listen? If I ask for help, will I be seen as weak? If I pull out my spray, will I be seen as the violent instigator?

No matter what I — what we as women — do, it feels like we are trapped.

I am still a teenager but yet I have experienced so much gendered harassment and hatred. What is still to come?

When I got off the bus at the Capitola Mall, I was still in tears and shock. I took out my phone and took a picture of my makeup-smeared face and included a caption about what had happened and posted it to Instagram.

One of my friends replied to my story saying, “I’m here for you, and so many other people are. You are not alone.”

That helped.

So did another friend’s offer to be my regular “bus buddy.” And so did my mom, who nursed me through that first night with emotional support tacos.

And the girl on the bus. I couldn’t hear her when she told me her name, but I will forever be grateful to her for listening and sharing her story. I hope she reads this someday and knows I am forever grateful.

I still take the bus from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, but it is so hard to get the harassment out of my mind. I’m now riding in fear, under heightened alert.

I’m not trying to punish Metro or do an exposé. I am just a high school girl who wants to ride the bus safely.

But I am writing this in hopes of making our public transit better, even if it is just by a bit.

I do believe in what Santa Cruz Metro stands for and the Youth Cruz Free program is fantastic. We just need more safety precautions.

It may be a dream, but I hope one day I can get on the bus and truly feel safe.

Izabella (Izzy) León is a rising junior at Pajaro Valley High School and a Watsonville native. She is involved in local events and programs for teens. After graduating, Izzy hopes to pursue a writing career (in journalism and creative writing) and continue advocacy for Latine and Black communities. When not writing, she can be found reading comics/manga, playing soccer, and listening to Beyoncé. She is a Lookout summer intern.