TriMet works at Latino outreach


Though two high-profile incidents seem fueled by language, no clear pattern of problems

With a TriMet investigation still underway, there are several unanswered questions about last week's revelation - first reported by the News-Times - that a bus driver on the No. 57 line was involved in a second incident involving a mother with crying children.

Did the mom, as a passenger suggested, instigate late-night verbal sparring on June 7 that ended only when a police officer arrived?

Why did the driver refuse the officer's request to let the family back on the bus?

And was this, indeed, the same driver, Claudeen Hendren, who served a 10-day suspension after a similar incident last September?

The similarities between the two incidents are astounding - and in both cases it seems a language barrier may have fed rising tensions between Hendren and Latino passengers.

That raises another question: does Hendren have a history of conflicts with Latinos?

A review of her lengthy disciplinary files shows no such pattern (See box, page A10).

What's more, although less than 5 percent of bus drivers are Latino, it's clear that the transit agency has taken several steps to ensure TriMet drivers have the tools to interact with riders who may speak English as their second language.

TriMet doesn't track complaints based on race or ethnicity, but agency spokeswoman Mary Fetsch she hasn't seen a trend of incidents involving Hispanic or Spanish-speaking passengers.

"It doesn't rise to a level I am aware of," Fetsch said.

Jonathan Ostar, the executive director for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, a non-profit that advocates for transit riders, said that when Latina women report issues with bus drivers, it's usually because they are trying to ride with children and strollers.

"It may be a language barrier [or] it may also have to do with a lack of understanding or awareness," he said. "We try to encourage greater understanding between bus riders and drivers."

Martin Gonzalez, TriMet's multicultural program manager, said he does hear the occasional complaint about bus drivers from Latino passengers. But Gonzalez said the passengers who complain often don't document all the details of the incident, such as the time of day and vehicle number of the bus.

Gonzalez said this can make it hard to investigate the issues riders face.

But for years TriMet has been working to better serve passengers who do not speak English as their first language.

In 2006, TriMet received a grant from the Federal Transit Administration to develop a Limited English Proficiency (LEP) plan. At the time, it was the only such program in the country, Gonzalez said, and TriMet is now a model for other transit districts.

Gonzalez was hired to develop the LEP plan, and said it's about reaching out to communities of people with limited English proficiency and making it easier for everyone to use public transportation.

"The program in itself is trying to provide better access to people," he said.

Gonzalez said the program so far has implemented ticket vending machines that offer instruction in English and Spanish, and has translated some written materials such as schedules and travel tips into Spanish.

Making transit simpler

Gonzalez said the federal grant funding the LEP program expired this year, but TriMet kept the program by rolling its costs into its general fund budget. He said he hopes to keep developing it by creating icons that can make using TriMet even simpler.

Even before the grant, TriMet offered instruction in "Farebox Spanish" to bus drivers who wanted to learn some basic helpful phrases, and Fetsch said many drivers took advantage of it on their own time.

However, TriMet has since shifted its focus when it comes to training bus operators, and no longer offers "Farebox Spanish." TriMet's main training priorities are about security, customer service and safety, Fetsch said. They can offer new drivers a basic class in diversity, but drivers interested in learning Spanish have to pursue it on their own.

Cornelius Police Chief Paul Rubenstein said language skills can be a major asset for public employees who routinely interact with the public, especially in a community like Cornelius, where 51 percent of the residents are Hispanic.

"There's no business, government or private sector in this area that doesn't try to get bilingual people," he said.

Rubenstein said that of those on his 14-person police force, two officers are fluent in Spanish and one is learning.

Maria Ruiz, the mother who was kicked off the bus with her four children June 7, said she was relieved when the Forest Grove Police officer who responded to her conflict with a bus driver could speak Spanish.

While the officer, Ernesto Villaraldo, couldn't diffuse the argument between Ruiz and the bus driver, who ordered her from the bus, Villaraldo decided to drive Ruiz and her children home to Cornelius.

When police respond to crisis situations, Rubenstein said being able to communicate in someone's first language can make a big difference. If there is no language barrier, he said it's easier to "get at the root issue" and resolve the problem.

Rubenstein commended Villaraldo for driving Ruiz and her family home.

"That's problem solving at its best," he said.

Rubenstein, who grew up in Mexico, is such a fan of bilingualism that he gives his bilingual officers a small pay bump, as do many other Oregon police agencies.

TriMet makes no specific effort to recruit Hispanic or bilingual bus drivers, according to Fetsch, nor track which drivers speak multiple languages.

But TriMet does know the racial and ethnic mix of its employees. According to Fetsch, as of June 30, 72.7 percent of bus drivers were white, 14.7 percent were African American, 4.5 percent were Hispanic or Latino and 3.9 percent were Asian.

Festch said bilingual bus drivers are "treated no differently than all of the other operators." They receive the same salary, and are not placed on routes where they might interact with more Latino passengers.

Fetsch said bus drivers, like police officers, need to solve problems, including those related to language barriers.

"The bottom line is that operators who provide good customer service always seem to find a way to provide good service," she said.

Investigation still underway

Last week the News-Times reported that a No. 57 bus driver was placed on administrative leave while TriMet investigated a June 7 incident in Forest Grove where a mother and her crying children were ordered from a bus following a fare dispute. TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said TriMet will speak with Maria Ruiz and other witnesses, three of which identified the driver in question as Claudeen Hendren, who served a 10-day suspension for a similar incident in September. The investigation should be finished by the end of this week. Fetsch said TriMet operations will review all of the information from the investigation and decide what, if any, discipline Hendren will receive.

Only one other complaint involving Hispanic rider

In January 2006, a concerned TriMet passenger called to report that she overheard bus driver Claudeen Hendren using the term "Mexican" in a disparaging manner. The passenger said that when a Hispanic passenger boarded the bus, Hendren made a comment implying that "Mexicans" pretend to not understand English even though they usually do. Hendren responded that she did not refer to Latinos as "Mexicans." TriMet reviewed the incident and said the evidence was inconclusive. Hendren was reminded of TriMet's harassment policy and the complaint was dismissed.