Educators in the San Francisco Unified School District receive special training on how to spot signs that something isn’t quite right with a student, and what to do about it. The same week one paraeducator received this training, they discovered two students who may be victims of human trafficking — and stepped in to get them the help they needed.
There’s a very real but little-known threat simmering in the worlds of youth today. In the past five years it has exploded across the U.S., including in San Francisco, and is prompting educators to take virtually unprecedented steps to address it.
The problem is the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, also known as “CSEC.”
Child sex trafficking is, by definition, when a child under 18 is involved in a commercial sex act in which sex is traded for money, food, shelter, drugs or other things of value. This horrific yet prevalent crime allows traffickers to make an alarming profit off of the torture of their victims, who experience rape, abuse and violence, among other things.
At the San Francisco Unified School District, where some 15,000 high school age students are educated in more than 20 public schools each year, the issue hits close to home for educators and families.
“The commercial sexual exploitation of young people is a very real risk,” said Alysse Castro, executive director of SFUSD’s alternative high schools. “We, as a collective, are looking out for kids. All our eyes need to be on spotting the signs.”
That’s why the district is providing school staff with specific trainings to help them understand what to look for and how to respond in the event a student is suspected of being a victim of this tragic crime.
San Francisco is a dense urban city, and SFUSD is far from immune to the realities of the sex trafficking industry. In fact, the same week that a high school paraeducator, David Allen, received training in the importance of reporting suspicious or abnormal behavior, the paraeducator (“para” for short) had those lessons put to the test.
Principals at SFUSD are instructed to provide boundaries training with their staff, which includes things like what behavior is acceptable when interacting with students. The training also urges staff to speak up if they see something that doesn’t seem right — which is exactly what this para did.
On a recent Friday, Independence High School Principal Anastasia Klafter shared the boundaries training with her staff. That weekend, the para was walking in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood when they saw two students from the para’s school exit a building that has a reputation for alleged drug and sex trafficking activity.
Beyond observing this, the para didn’t act immediately. The para works closely with these students on a day-to-day basis, but this happened on the weekend. The para wondered if bringing students’ personal actions to the attention of school authorities was invasive of their privacy, and questioned whether an educator is obligated to report such an incident when it’s outside of school hours and nowhere near campus.
Ultimately, the para made the right decision and reported what they saw.
“Adults have a responsibility to speak up if they see something that doesn’t seem right, even if it’s ‘not their business’ or even if it doesn’t happen on school grounds,” this high school’s principal told me.
That’s what the boundaries training reinforced. After reflecting on the training that the para had received the week prior and what the para observed, the para decided it was their obligation to report what they’d seen.
“If the para were to have taken that mentality of, ‘Oh, it’s not my business,’ we would be negligent in our jobs and knowingly allowing harm to happen to our students,” the principal explained.
The para told a teacher, “I saw something and I didn’t think I needed to say anything, but after the training I realized that I did need to report it.”
The teacher who works with the para went to the principal and relayed what the para observed. The principal would learn after some time that the youth were in fact being exploited and the move by the para set off a series of steps taken to intervene and help the students’ situation improve.
The principal directly credits the district-sponsored training with giving this para the tools they needed to do the right thing and report the situation.
“Now everyone’s on the same page that everything is all of our business, especially with these young people,” the principal said. “Many of them are in crisis, they have experienced or they currently are experiencing trauma. They need more adults looking out for them.”
After the teacher reported this incident to the principal, the principal worked closely with the school’s Wellness Program staff, community-based organizations and child protective services to address the situation the students were in.
“The training led to a staff person immediately changing their behavior and identifying an area of concern in the lives of two of our students,” Castro noted. “This really shows how the training makes a difference about being part of the collective safety net for our young people.”
Earlier this month, the San Francisco Mayor’s Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking released the 3rd Annual Human Trafficking Report in San Francisco. The report revealed that 529 survivors of human trafficking (which includes sex and labor trafficking) were identified in San Francisco in 2016, although the number of cases reported by agencies may include duplicates.
According to the report, 24 percent of the survivors with known ages are minors. Seventy-four percent are under the age of 25. Agencies identified 77 minor survivors of sex trafficking and 131 transitional aged youth survivors (ages 18–24), for a total of 208 sexually exploited youth under the age of 25.
The principal of the students’ rescued isn’t taking this case lightly. While grateful that a relatively positive outcome came from this situation, the principal noted that school leaders must strive to implement “what might seem perfunctory professional development” because it can save lives.
“You might assume all the adults in your building are on the same page around boundaries and mandated reporting. That’s not necessarily the case,” the principal said. “It’s on you to make sure everybody is on the same page as the leader of the school.”
SFUSD offers a number of resources to students and families. Parents and guardians are advised to talk to their children about human trafficking, and monitor their cell phone, computer use, and online presence. Families may also consider the following:
- Teach youth to recognize “red flags,” including someone asking personal questions such as your name and address.
- Remind youth to never share their names, school’s name, age, phone number, or email or home address with strangers.
- Never send pictures to strangers.
- Keep passwords private (except from parents).
- Remind youth that “gifts” from strangers are never free — that there is usually something wanted in return.
- Do not accept rides from strangers, even if the person has been a regular presence around the area.
- Ignore catcalls or “compliments” from strangers.
- Remind your children to tell a trusted adult immediately if something “creepy” happens in-person or online.
If you suspect a case of child sex trafficking, you may call 1–800-THE-LOST® or make a report at www.cybertipline.org.