Educators are on the front lines for identifying, reporting, and providing services to suspected child trafficking victims. Thorough training can help school personnel understand the indicators of human trafficking and recruitment. This is particularly useful in schools, as they serve as a recruiting source for sex traffickers due to the vulnerability and naïveté of school-aged children. Recruiters tend to focus on kids with exceptional vulnerabilities: foster kids, disabled children, and kids with dysfunctional families. The recruitment of child sex trafficking victims often takes place in the classrooms and school hallways. Often, boys and girls that have been trafficked may recruit their classmates and friends. Recruiters also target areas frequented by students, such as bus stops and afterschool programs. With proper intervention by trained school staff, the act of recruitment and trafficking of students can be effectively addressed.

The need for proper training for school administrators and staff was highlighted at a recent hearing, “Falling through the Cracks: The Challenges of Prevention and Identification in Child Trafficking and Private Rehoming,” held by the Subcommittee on Children and Families of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. In her opening statement, Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) explained that the greatest challenges in combatting both child sex trafficking and rehoming practices remains the lack of concrete data that can help shape policy and legal responses. Frontline service providers have found it difficult to appropriately address and understand the issue at hand because of an underreporting of the crimes and victims being labeled as prostitutes. Too often, children come into contact with such providers but still manage to fall through the cracks, joining thousands of children commercially exploited in the United States.

Jenee Littrell, one of the witnesses at the hearing, is committed to protecting youth in her district from sex trafficking. Littrell is an assistant principal at an alternative school in Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego, which has been identified as one of three “high intensity prostitution areas” by the FBI. After the school district began to notice students falling victim to sex traffickers, Littrell was inspired to create a program that would strengthen the schools response to the issue. In collaboration with stakeholders in law enforcement, child welfare, and social services, Grossmont Union created an innovative program to combat trafficking. The interagency program has four key components: “1) increased staff awareness and education on the indicators and the nature of the crime; 2) increased parent and student awareness of the risks and realities of trafficking; 3) clearly articulated district policy and protocol for identifying a suspected victim or responding to a disclosure from a suspected victim; and 4) strong working partnerships with law enforcement, child welfare, probation and social service agencies.”

The taskforce began to work with a nationally renowned expert in First Amendment rights to create and enact an effective interagency information-sharing agreement. Within days, the sharing of information helped them identify their first student victim of sex trafficking. As time went on, they learned that the magnitude of the problem was far more critical than any one system could handle and that schools played a critical role in protecting students. In order to enable all personnel in the school community to be effective advocates for students, the taskforce had to provide proper training and support.

The taskforce got to work developing a comprehensive staff training for all school staff that thoroughly explained the issue of child sex trafficking, the scope of the issue, warning signs, campus impact, and a clear course of action on how to respond when a student is identified. Additionally, they developed a step-by-step protocol for school personnel to identify youth who may be victims of sexual exploitation and provide information on when and how to consult outside experts to assist a student impacted by trafficking. Lastly, the taskforce partnered with national and local experts to create a prevention curriculum for both students and their guardians.

The development of a cross-system, interagency collaboration to protect students from sex trafficking is nothing short of a laudable innovation. In many ways, it has allowed for the problem to be better understood and addressed by systems other than local education departments. Through this collaboration, local law enforcement has increased their understanding of the issue and now works with the students as victims rather than as criminals. Local child welfare services have also benefitted from the interagency collaboration, one lesson being that fewer family ties could make a child more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

The interagency collaboration at Grossmont Union High School District could serve as a national model for other schools that are working to protect their students from the pervasive patterns of sex trafficking that have claimed space on many campuses. Although sex trafficking is undoubtedly complex, there are solutions that can be put in place by providers who work with children across disciplines. By empowering teachers and other school employees to identify and respond to incidences of child sex trafficking, we can ensure that schools remain the safe haven they are meant to be.