A Transport Security Administration (TSA) officer sexually assaulted me during a “search” at Orlando International Airport on October 23, 2019. My article about my subsequent attempts to seek answers being stonewalled was published on February 13. That day, a woman who read it reached out to Filter to report her similar ordeal in January at the same airport.
But what Nicole described was worse than what happened to me. (People with a trauma history may not wish to read the description that follows.)
Nicole, who asked that only her first name be used, was going through airport security on her way home to Baltimore with her partner (who was in another line, so unable to assist) on January 14 at about 5:30 pm.
“I had on a short black skirt—a skort—with an elastic waist,” she told Filter. The TSA agent, a woman, was conducting the search at the direction of another, male agent. Nicole was instructed to place her hands on her head. The woman reached with her gloved hand inside Nicole’s skort, then inside her panties.
“’We have to pat down and make sure there’s nothing there,’ they told me,” she said, quoting the man talking to the woman. “I thought it would be a quick swipe,” Nicole said. “But next thing I knew, her hand was in my underwear, and she felt around.”
“They said, ‘We have to feel inside,’” Nicole recounted. “My hands are still on my head. They asked me to open up my legs more. They asked, ‘Do you have anything in your vagina?’”
She recalled thinking, “My goodness, I’m 47.”
The TSA agent then inserted her gloved finger into Nicole’s vagina. Nicole said that this assault happened in full view of other passengers.
Afterwards, “She nonchalantly wiped off her glove.” She then placed the wipe in a machine, presumably to detect a banned substance (not drugs, as I previously discovered, but potential explosives).
As a transplant patient, Nicole is on an immunosuppressant and said she was terrified that the glove wasn’t clean.
Like me, Nicole was paralyzed and frozen. What happened after she complained made it worse.
Nicole, a musician, is also on oxygen. Her nasal cannula was on the X-ray belt at the time. She broke her arm badly a couple years ago and has eight screws and a plate in it. Yet after her scan, it was her vagina they were interested in.
Like me, Nicole was paralyzed and frozen. She initially tried to “laugh it off.” But after reading Filter’s articles, she said, she realized that she had a right to be upset. And she complained to the authorities.
But what happened after she complained made it worse. “I called [the Orlando police] after I read your article,” Nicole said. “I told the police officer there was penetration. He told me I watched too much television. The police officer said, ‘This didn’t happen to you, you’re making this up.’”
Nicole, like me, realized that there must be a video of the incident, and that it would be easy to find. “I have flaming red hair, I have oxygen.”
But the police officer, she said, told her that she would have to return to Orlando from her home in Baltimore if she wanted to press charges: ’’You have to fly down here and single her out in a lineup,’” he said, referring to the TSA agent.
Nicole added that the officer threatened her. “He said I would go to jail if it’s a false accusation.”
Ultimately, she called a rape crisis line. That was the first place where she received solace. The psychologist there talked with her for more than an hour.
When she got off the phone, she was “changed,” Nicole said. “It was comforting and validating. I felt guilty calling because I thought this was really for someone who has been raped, and in my mind I was in this weird category.”
But it hit her how she would have reacted if the same had happened to her 17-year-old daughter. “That’s why my reaction was so extreme. I knew it was wrong. But I stood there and submitted to it. That’s why I knew that I needed to talk to someone. I knew boundaries were being crossed.”
Nicole now feels “a million times better” than before. She cried a lot after her experience—and after complaining to the police—but no longer does, she said.
She and I compared descriptions of the TSA agent in our cases, and are certain that it was two different people. But the idea that the culture of Orlando TSA enables this is perhaps even more disturbing than the notion of a single predatory agent.
“I think they were torturing me for no reason.”
I asked Rory Fleming, a lawyer who writes regularly for Filter, about how Florida law would regard the attacks reported by Nicole and me.
Although I called my own molestation “sexual assault,” it turns out that Florida law defines this extremely narrowly. Groping someone’s crotch or squeezing their breasts apparently does not qualify.
“The honestly shocking part of this is that [in Florida] it’s a first-degree misdemeanor for a first offense and it’s not a sex crime,” said Fleming of my case. “’Sexual battery’ is the Florida statute’s euphemism for rape. There are sexual misconduct charges that address this type of conduct, but only when it involves a minor or ward (with very specific criteria like psychologist/patient).”
My experience does not fit the definition of sexual battery, which includes penetration with an object (such as a finger), said Fleming.
Nicole’s experience does, however.
A common retort against complaints like ours is that by flying, people consent to TSA agents’ contact–but this is “within certain acceptable, consensual bounds,” said Fleming.
“I think they were torturing me for no reason,” said Nicole.
Like me, she has contacted her Senator to seek answers. In her case, that’s Sen. Chris Von Hollen (D-Maryland), and she said that his staffer “was beyond helpful.” No concrete progress has yet been made, however.
Nicole filed her complaint with the TSA on February 12. On February 17, she received the following email reply—clearly a cut-and-paste job—with an ad for TSA pre-check embedded. Paying $85 seems to be the going rate to avoid the possibility of being attacked. (The “concentrator” refers to Nicole’s portable oxygen machine, which was disconnected from her and on the X-ray belt at the time.)
The last line of the email just about sums up the agency’s total indifference.
The TSA Contact Center has forwarded your message of concern to the Transportation Security Administration in Orlando.
In your message you stated that you had concerns about the way you were screened at the security checkpoint.
TSA Officers are screening for weapons and items related to explosives. The AIT body scanner scans for everything above the skin. Its computer compensates for normal clothing. If the computer detects a potential threat it will display the alarmed area on the monitor at the exit of the scanner. The TSA Officer will then pat down the area to resolve the alarm. After a groin area inspection, the Officer will test their hands for explosives.
If you could not disconnect from the concentrator, then a full pat down would have been performed. Any time you are subject to a pat down, you may ask the officer to change gloves. Also, you may ask for a private screening.
TSA Pre-check has no age restrictions. Travelers who are 12 and under are allowed in Pre-check with an eligible parent or guardian. The fee for a background check is $85.00. Pre-check eligibility lasts for 5 years.
The following link refers to the age limit.
Application for TSA Pre-check can be found on our home page: www.TSA.GOV
Should you feel that you need assistance through screening, TSA has a program called TSA Cares. The program is a help line to assist travelers with disabilities and medical conditions going through the security process. Travelers may call TSA Cares toll free at 1-855-787-2227 or e-mail [email protected] 72 hours ahead of their flight. TSA Cares will request information from your itinerary. They will send a message to all of the airports involved with your travel.
At Orlando, we place your request on our assistance schedule. On the day of your departure we assign you a Passenger Support Specialist, who is a TSA Officer. If you had provided contact information, the Specialist will call you a couple of hours ahead of your departure time.
The Specialist will arrange for a meeting place in the airport. When you meet you may address any concerns you may have about the screening process. The Specialist will then escort you through the security checkpoint.
We regret that your experience was less than satisfactory.
TSA Orlando (MCO) Customer Support Representative