Cases of BHS-related teen prostitution misreported

Reports about teen prostitution locally have been exagerrated

A number of stories in the media this week suggesting that teen prostitution was on the rise at Berkeley High School has prompted both the Berkeley Police Department and Berkeley High to hit back with evidence to the contrary. Principal Pasquale Scuderi also expressed his disappointment with some of the coverage and its potential impact on the school’s reputation.

A December 8th piece on KTVU Channel 2, headlined “Reports of teenage hookers rock Berkeley High” spoke of “high school girls pacing the blocks of San Pablo Avenue for sex” and said the Berkeley police were receiving one to two referrals a month from Berkeley High officials about suspected student prostitution.

BUSD spokesperson Mark Coplan told Berkeleyside there have been “zero” referrals from BHS about juvenile prostitution. And, in a release put out on Thursday, BUSD Superintendent Bill Huyett said: “We have reviewed the two years referred to, and have confirmed that there have been no referrals for prostitution of any kind from Berkeley High School in 2010 or 2011.”

Also Thursday, BPD issued figures on arrests and referrals for teen prostitution for the city as a whole and for those relating to BHS. The overall number of juvenile prostitution cases investigated by BPD was seven in 2010 and four so far in 2011. Of the seven last year, three involved BHS students, and two cases involved BHS students this year. None of the investigations involved prostitution on the school campus.

The BPD Special Victims unit receives approximately one or two reports a month regarding possible youth prostitution activity in Berkeley, according to BPD. These usually come in the form of a call from a member of the community who sees a young woman they suspect may be engaged in prostitution. (Read full details in the release.)

Other local media to pick up the story include Patch and SFWeekly, which wrote that the community was “freaking out” over reports of high school students “apparently working as prostitutes when they should be working on their math homework”.

In an email to the BHS community Thursday evening, Principal Scuderi singled out the KTVU report in particular for what he called its “salacious, tabloid-style headline”. He said the piece did a massive disservice to the BHS community.

Addressing how the school tackles the issue, Scuderi wrote: “Teen prostitution, or any sexual exploitation of minors is obviously a grim matter, and in my estimation, one of the most contemptible and degrading forms of child abuse. Berkeley High School administrators and counselors will, if and when cases like this come to our attention, always follow-up on any and all reports with an aggressive package of actions and interventions.”

Exposure of the prostitution issue was triggered by a forum held in October by Berkeley’s Commission on the Status of Women, and a subsequent one on Tuesday this week, that raised issues about the sexual exploitation of minors within the city and looked at whether they were connected to Berkeley High School.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out our All the News grid.

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  • Bruce

    Is it possible to ban Channel 2’s helicopter from Berkeley for six months? “You’re grounded!” would be just about the right response, I think.

  • What an interesting look at how deeply flawed most of our local media outlets are.

    A big thank you to all the Berkeleyside writers and editors, for providing more accurate and less sensationalized coverage of our local news.

  • Zach Franklin

    Yes, thank you Berkeleyside! 

  • elp

    KTVU has been a Fox affiliate for years, but the news department had remained somewhat reliable until recently. Apparently the hideous virus that is Fox News has begun to infect them. 

  • TN

    I think that KTVU news people Frank Somerville and John Sasaki are both Berkeley High and UCB graduates. You’d think that they’d have better contacts around the city.

  • This is a helpful clarification, but I do think there are still some unanswered questions.

    The KTVU piece says that referrals are coming from BHS and BHS refutes that.  Fair enough.  But BPD Detective Speelman and Sergeant Kusmiss were both quoted as saying that some of the teens they DO arrest are “linked to Berkeley High.”  

    The question for the District, then, is this:  do they work with BPD to find out whether there were signs they overlooked?  That BHS didn’t refer its students doesn’t change the fact that, according to BPD, some of those students are getting picked up on San Pablo.  Coplan/Huyett come off as being proud that they never referred any students — I’d expect them to be chastened and asking themselves, “did we miss something with these kids? What can we learn for next time?”  “Zero referrals” is only good if there are zero cases that should have been referred!

    Also, I really have to object to the way this article lumps the Patch together with the blogger at SFWeekly.  The latter repeated the KTVU error; the Patch did not and actually did a good job of reporting the information available to them.  

    I posted a blog entry about the huge variation in coverage of this issue by local news outlets.  It also includes some questions that I wish this Berkeleyside piece had bothered to pose.

  • Thinkitover

    Your sure they didn’t mean Berkeley Adult School…?

  • @Tracey — by the way, what’s the deal with the photo accompanying this article?  It doesn’t have a credit or a location in Berkeley: just a caption that says that [some] reports have been exaggerated.  The KTVU piece included video of teenage legs shuffling at a crosswalk, but they were all wearing jeans and sensible shoes.  Did you take this photo in Berkeley somewhere and forget to mention it in the article?  Or is this another example of the tabloid-style salaciousness that Scuderi criticized in the KTVU headline?

  • Laura

    In 2010, I made a referral to CPS, police,  district and to a BHS VP about a sophomore assigned to home hospital school)  involved in prostitution, thefts, and other criminal activity. 

    The mandated reporting is not to the police but to CPS. There
    is always room for improvements.

    I am glad to hear the serious tone from the principal,  and hope the highlighting of teen prostitution  by the Commission on the Status of Women results in improved Incident reporting and referrals services.

    Youth Radio won a Peabody last year for covering Oakland’s efforts to reduce teen prostitution. Naturally  Berkeley teens would be affected when you consider how huge an issue it is in neighboring Oakland.

  • Emily Henry

    I also would like to clarify that Berkeley Patch did not misrepresent the facts in its coverage of this issue (see our Dec. 7 article, which preceded other Berkeley-specific media coverage:, and that Mark Coplan’s comment about their being “zero” referrals from BHS about youth prostitution has been directly contradicted by the Berkeley Police Department:

    Thank you,

    Emily Henry
    Berkeley Patch

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Emily — the Patch has had the story right from the start.  Berkeleyside was a little credulous, I think, and certainly should have covered Sgt. Kusmiss’ press release after running their high-handed correction of others’ coverage.  

    Confidential to Mark Coplan:  when BPD says that they’ve arrested your students for prostitution, the fact that the district missed the signs and didn’t engage CPS — “zero referrals” — is not something to brag about.   

    Would love to see a follow-up piece, Emily, in which Coplan explains how the school has reexamined its procedures in view of these five cases.  Were the girls habitually truant?  Is there anything in their social circle that could have been a clue?  Were they at-risk academically?  Were efforts made to engage parents?  Were there signs that, in hindsight, should have triggered a CPS contact and that can at least be a teachable moment for staff going forward? Or should we expect more of the same as the calendar turns to another year?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Nancy Johnson, BUSD’s McKinney-Vento (homeless students) coordinator, spoke during public comment at this Tuesday’s City Council meeting saying, “The petty theft that might go on is very different than what some of our kids have to do.   They have to be prostitutes. They have to get into heavy crime. Because they can’t eat[…]”

    Someone here isn’t being truthful.  But who?