Nov 12, 2015

‘John Schools’ Look to Curb Sex Trade

Reporting Texas

Photo illustration by Thalia Juarez/Reporting Texas

Photo illustration by Thalia Juarez/Reporting Texas

Two years after Anita Johnson joined the Waco Police Department in 1990, she stood on the street with pimps and prostitutes, sweaty and dirty, looking for clients. She was still a cop, though.

Johnson, now 48, encountered all kinds of “johns” — men who buy sex — during her years as an undercover officer. She remembers an interaction with a young, handsome and nervous military man.

“I looked down into his convertible, and he was so scared already. His legs were shaking,” Johnson said of the arrest. “Later on, when he was in the cruiser, I just asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Johnson no longer goes undercover, but her impact is still felt throughout Texas: She started and runs the state’s first “john school” —  an educational program begun in 2002 for men arrested on solicitation of prostitution charges. John schools give first-time offenders the chance to expunge their solicitation records by attending a class.

The first school was created in San Francisco in the 1990s, and the programs have since spread unevenly across the country. Texas also has john schools in San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. Since 2011, a state law has regulated the schools. Any county or city can create one as an alternative to fines or incarceration.

In the classes, which usually last a single day and can cost up to $400, men learn about health risks and sexual addiction, all with a goal of diminishing the demand for prostitution.

Johnson says she worked undercover for several years before she knew what a john school was. One day, she saw a television show about a San Francisco program.

“I started doing some research about it, and I’m like, ‘Man, that would be a great program to start here in Waco,’” she said.

Though some critics question the effectiveness of the schools, advocates say statistics show they work. A 2012 study funded by the federal Department of Justice reported that the john school in San Francisco had hosted 5,000 men between 1995 and 2005. Recidivism fell to 4.5 percent, well below the rate of 8.8 percent before the john school was created.

The Waco john school boasts a recidivism rate of 2.2 percent. According to Waco police records, from 2002 to 2014, 135 johns “graduated” from the school, and only three found themselves back in the hands of the law.

Some experts say john school isn’t the ultimate answer to reducing prostitution. DePaul University professor Jody Raphael, 71, has dedicated her work to the study of prostitution and sex trafficking. Removing the demand for prostitution should be the focus of the fight, she says, but she also believes that john schools can’t be the only way.

Raphael likened john schools to taking defensive driving classes.

“It’s like somebody gets two speeding tickets, and they have to go to traffic school,” Raphael said. “So you go through the class, and take the little test, and what? You might be a little more careful in the future so you don’t have to repeat the experience, but I think losing your license for a period of time is a much more efficient way.”

Johnson has spent most of her 25-year career with the Waco Police Drug Enforcement Unit, specializing in prostitution stings. Her average day used to look like this: Before a sting, Johnson mowed the lawn for hours, making sure to get as grimy and unkempt as possible to play the part of a drug-addicted prostitute later that night.

She would stand on a sidewalk, waiting for johns to come shopping. They’d strike up a conversation, and she’d wait for an offer or an agreement to pay for sex. Once that requirement was met, Johnson gave a signal to a partner, and the arrest was made.

Now Johnson also trains people on how to run their own john schools. She worked with Elizabeth Crooks, co-founder and executive director of Embassy of Hope in San Antonio, who modeled her john school after the one in Waco.

Embassy of Hope offers assistance to prostitutes through counseling and life skills classes. Today, thanks to Johnson’s training, Crooks can attack the problem from both sides.

“She taught me everything I know,” Crooks said.

Johnson is also teaming up with Jesus Said Love, an organization that fights the sex trade by reaching out to strippers in Waco and other major Texas cities.

“Our organization needed a way to combat the demand side of it,” said Emily Mills, co-founder of Jesus Said Love. “The john school was the best fit.”

Under the new partnership, the Waco john school will be called End the Demand, and will no longer be a diversion program but part of the sentencing process. Mills says she hopes to increase the fees for attending john school — and to also raise the price a john might have to pay if his car is impounded during an arrest.

“We want them to feel this,” said Mills, “because if you have money to buy sex and harm a girl, then you can pay something. We want to make it hard on people in Central Texas to buy sex.”