High-school students in Seattle were set to take home more than just homework from their first day of school Wednesday. Thanks to a recently expanded program, free transit passes are now available for all public high-school students.
But some of those students may have encountered fare-enforcement officers before they could pick up their new ORCA cards.
On a northbound light-rail train between the Othello and Mount Baker stations Wednesday morning, fare-enforcement officers requested proof of payment from young riders with backpacks, according to a Seattle Public Schools teacher who said his wife witnessed the interaction.
The well-known teacher and activist, Jesse Hagopian, posted a photo of the encounter on Twitter on Wednesday, drawing outrage from people who wondered why Sound Transit would crack down on students who would soon get free fare.
Hagopian said in an interview that he and his wife did not know the riders, but that they got off at the Mount Baker station, a short walk from Franklin High School.
Sound Transit said the officers were doing standard fare enforcement Wednesday and were offering leniency to students.
Last month, Seattle Public Schools mailed students temporary passes to use until they get their free ORCA cards. Still, even students without those temporary passes were not formally warned or ticketed Wednesday, said Sound Transit spokeswoman Rachelle Cunningham.
Hagopian said officers took photos of the young riders’ IDs. Typically, fare-enforcement officers take photos of IDs when they issue formal warnings to riders caught for the first time without fare. (Riders caught a second time within a year can get a $124 ticket.)
Asked why officers took photos of the IDs if they were not issuing formal warnings, Cunningham said in an email: “The fare enforcement officers were doing their jobs the way they normally do. In this instance, because students did not have their permanent [ORCA] cards yet, they were not issued formal warnings, and the photos will not be entered into the system.”
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff spoke about the controversy at a board meeting Thursday. The online attention “reflected some very valid questions about how we do fare enforcement, but there was a great deal of confusion and misinformation that I want to address,” Rogoff said.
Rogoff said fare enforcement was not increased Wednesday and no students were ticketed. No students will be ticketed or formally warned for the rest of the week, he said, and if any students did receive tickets or warnings they will be “expunged.”
“Since we’re not recording formal warnings to students that means that no student interactions with fare enforcement count toward whether they might ever get a ticket in the future,” Rogoff said.
In a letter to Rogoff Wednesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan had asked Sound Transit to “expunge any warnings issued to students during this first week of school.”
Rogoff said Thursday Sound Transit “did hear from the parent of the student whose interaction with our fare enforcement officer was posted to Twitter yesterday. She said her daughter told her her interaction with the officer was quote ‘great’ and she was grateful for the way it was handled and resents the way it’s being portrayed on Twitter.”
County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who also sits on the Sound Transit board, said the public response highlighted a broader issue.
“What we saw yesterday on social media suggests a public concern and interest in doing the best possible fare enforcement from an equity lens as we possibly can,” McDermott said.
McDermott and Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant criticized the enforcement on Twitter Wednesday. McDermott called it “very troubling.”
Hagopian said the action was “uncalled for.”
“It’s quite intimidating to take their IDs and have them photographed,” he said. “Students don’t know what that means and what the level of severity that could be.”
Hagopian previously taught at Garfield High School and is currently working as a substitute teacher, he said.
Seattle officials agreed to offer free ORCA cards first for low-income students and then for all high-schoolers following activism from students at Rainier Beach High School.
Enforcement on the first day of school is a “slap in the face to the hard work and the intentions of those students and all the people that supported their movement,” Hagopian said.
Sound Transit policy instructs fare-enforcement officers, who work for the private company Securitas, to board light-rail trains on either end and check all riders’ fares from the ends toward the middle. The agency says the system is meant to prevent possible officer bias. Sound Transit also says it takes allegations of officer misconduct seriously.
After initially appearing to dismiss concerns about enforcement on Twitter, the agency said it was not ticketing students and asked any high-school student who received a ticket Wednesday to email email@example.com.
Wednesday’s action comes as the region debates the value of fare enforcement. A 2018 audit found King County Metro’s fare-enforcement program negatively affected people experiencing homelessness and concluded the agency “cannot determine whether its model of fare enforcement makes sense, in terms of costs and outcomes.”
In response, Metro overhauled its system and lowered the cost of tickets, but is still determining how to better help people who cannot afford the bus.
Sound Transit has said it is considering similar shifts but has not yet said what it will change. The city of Seattle, meanwhile, is considering adding new fare enforcement to its streetcars.
This story was updated on Thursday, Sept. 5, to include comments from Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff.