Two students were assaulted by a man who appeared to be drunk and “delusional” on a D.C. Metrobus last week on their way to a Southeast D.C. elementary school. The students, tutors for GW’s Heads Up program, said the aid of an unidentified “Samaritan” helped them escape the incident unharmed.
Forty-eight GW students travel to inner city elementary and middle schools each week with Heads Up, a non-profit organization that draws on area college students to tutor and mentor elementary school children.
After boarding the U8 Metrobus in front of the Benning Road Metro station last Thursday afternoon, the students and their supervisor, Lisa Lawson, said they immediately noticed an agitated man near the back of the bus.
“The minute I walked on, a guy in the back of the bus started screaming obscenities,” freshman Robert Goldberg said.
“When we got on, we really seemed to anger him,” freshman Marissa Helfrich added.
Students said the man, who was black, directed racist comments toward the white students. The rest of the passengers on the bus, including Lawson, were black.
They reported that the man ripped Goldberg’s glasses off his face and threw them in an adjacent seat, then tried to advance toward Helfrich while screaming vulgarities.
Helfrich said the man also threatened to shoot the two students and said he would blow up the bus.
“He was clearly delusional,” Lawson said.
A man, who both students only knew as a Pentagon worker and a regular bus rider, stepped up to help the students by putting his body between Helfrich and the man.
“The (assailant) tried to push the Pentagon guy down,” Helfrich said. “His hands were stretched out like he was coming to get me.”
Both students said most of the people on the bus had left by the time the altercation ended.
The Pentagon worker flashed identification and ordered the assailant off the bus. The students said the man complied but spilled his open container of beer on them before leaving.
Helfrich and Goldberg said the Pentagon worker missed his stop to help them. Both students arrived at Davis Elementary School unharmed.
“If that nice guy didn’t get on the bus, I don’t know what would have happened. It could have been so much worse,” Helfrich said. “We would have been trapped.”
Both students said they were astonished the bus driver did nothing to help and had ignored the man carrying an open container of alcohol onto the bus.
“(The driver) told me to have a nice day,” Helfrich said.
Later the students said police told them the driver was not equipped with a phone or radio and that he should have put “CALL 911” on the sign on the front of the bus that announces its route.
Phil Wallace, general superintendent for Metrobus maintenance, said all D.C. buses are equipped with radios.
Metropolitan Police officers met the students at the school, where
Helfrich and Goldberg identified a man police had detained. MPD told the students that after the man had gotten off the bus, he threw a beer can at a passerby.
Goldberg and Helfrich said the man is now in police custody. MPD was unable to confirm.
No one knows who notified police, but the students speculate it was their “Pentagon Samaritan.”
The students said they found out later from police that the man was recently released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Southeast D.C. and that he had robbed a store a few minutes before boarding the bus.
MPD officials in the sixth district, where the reported assault occurred, refused to disclose the assailant’s name and age. A sixth district public information officer said it would be nearly impossible to locate any record of the incident, due to the high volume of daily assaults in Southeast.
Although shaken by the encounter, both students said the experience would not deter them from participating in the tutoring program.
“It was traumatizing; I thought I was going to be shot,” Goldberg said. “I’m not sure how I’ll get to (Davis elementary) now.”
Helfrich emphasized that it was an isolated incident.
“I don’t think twice about going back,” she said. “This is such a great program, and I’m concerned that people who read this won’t want to volunteer for it.”
“It was a terrible incident, but it’s not the norm,” said Lawson, the students’ supervisor.
Tim Miller, assistant director for Community Service Programs at GW, said between 1,200 and 1,500 students are also involved in D.C. Reads and the Neighbors Project, two other tutoring programs.
While neither of these programs sends students to Southeast D.C., Miller said the Shaw and Columbia Heights neighborhoods in Northwest and Northeast D.C., where they tutor, are also low-income areas.
He said that while the incident “won’t affect” D.C. Reads or Neighbors Project, it will make those in charge of the programs “more cognizant of the training for the volunteers.”