Spotting and Addressing Sex Trafficking in Schools - ASCD
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June 14, 2021

Spotting and Addressing Sex Trafficking in Schools

    Spotting and Addressing Sex Trafficking in Schools - thumbnail

      By Tashina Khabbaz

      As an educational specialist for the anti-trafficking organization Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST), I have seen many educators who are not aware of or do not know how to approach the challenges of sex trafficked students. This can leave vulnerable children to be victimized and sexually exploited. When a child is sex trafficked, they experience a plethora of adverse school outcomes, from a change in academic performance, difficulty learning, and disruptive classroom behavior to experiencing absenteeism, suspension, expulsion, and even dropping out. Estimates reveal that hundreds of thousands of children are trafficked every year in the United States, many of whom are citizens. While the federal definition of child abuse and neglect has added the term sex trafficking as a form of child maltreatment, to date, sex trafficking is significantly underreported. This is partly due to limited awareness and misinformation of sex trafficking, flawed data collection, and victim reporting barriers.

      As school personnel are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, they must have the tools to identify sex-trafficked children better. Here are some common questions from educators about this issue and ways to be a better advocate for students who are being sex trafficked.

      How can educators spot a student who may be targeted for sex trafficking? 

      While all children are at risk of being sex trafficked, certain factors heighten vulnerability. Specific populations who are more vulnerable can include immigrant children, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, racially minoritized children, those who identify as LGBTQIA, and children with developmental disabilities. Other risk factors include children with educational or mental health challenges; children who have experienced maltreatment or violence; children who are homeless or have run away; students who are easily influenced by others, such as friends in crews or gangs; or those who are involved with the child welfare or criminal justice system. Attention to children’s environment and experiences will provide additional information when assessing a child’s situation. 

      Some indicators that can help to identify a student who may be involved in sex trafficking include:

      • Language they use such as, “the life,” “the game,” “the track,” “turn out,” or referring to themselves as an “accountant” on social media

      • Signs of child abuse and neglect (bruises, cuts, etc.)

      • Unexplained absences from class

      • Less appropriately dressed than before

      • Recent decline in academic performance

      • Change in relationships or behavior

      • Overly tired in class

      • Withdrawn, depressed, distracted, or checked out

      • Brags about making or having lots of new money

      • Displays new phones, clothes, or accessories

      • New tattoo of a name or symbol that suggests ownership

      It is essential to be mindful that these situations are not one-size-fits-all. Similar to other forms of abuse, sex trafficking indicators do not always meet the expected criteria. But there are helpful resources such as the Educator Assessment Tool developed by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) that can provide direction when assessing these situations.

      Since it is such a sensitive issue, how can educators reach out to these students?

      Trying to understand the child’s personal perception about their situation is an ideal place to start. Some children may not realize they are being trafficked because they believe they are in a real romantic relationship with an older partner. Other children may be afraid to reach out for help in fear of their own or their family’s safety. Some children knowingly engage in sex trafficking because they believe it is the only way to survive and obtain their basic needs such as food or shelter. Knowing the student’s perceptions can help to inform how educators can begin to support them.

      When approaching the child about their situation, one should be mindful of how safe the child feels. To ensure they feel safe, begin with the following questions:

      • Do you feel comfortable with me checking in with you to see how you are doing?

      • Do you feel comfortable speaking with me individually right now?

      • What can I do to make you feel safer at this moment as we talk?

      Specific messages educators can convey:

      • Your safety is our priority.

      • We are here to help.

      • You can trust me.

      At the end of the day, whether a child is knowingly being trafficked or not, it is essential for them to feel emotionally safe and supported by their school staff. Developing a positive relationship with at-risk students fosters trust-building and rapport, which are necessary components for child victims to begin to feel safe and seen.

      How can schools be most helpful in combating this problem?

      There are three ways that schools can develop effective responses to address this problem: (1) form community partnerships, (2) increase sex trafficking awareness, and (3) assess and develop district policies. Schools can partner with local or state anti-trafficking organizations to better understand the scope of sex trafficking in their area and learn about resources and state policies. Additionally, schools can collaborate with neighborhood jurisdictions in conjunction with anti-trafficking organizations and collectively develop solutions to reduce victimization and promote identification and interventions. This process will help to create a safer school environment and will support academic and social student success.

      Another foundational element to improving sex trafficking response is awareness training. State or local anti-trafficking organizations can develop context-specific training so that individuals will understand how sex trafficking occurs within their area. These organizations can also provide professional development or continuing education trainings for staff, training for students through health education programs, and free trainings for the community. Schools should work closely with anti-trafficking organizations and the school community to examine pre-existing district policies and practices that may lead to unintended student pushout (dress code, suspension, and expulsion policies, for example). Additionally, schools can develop memorandums of understanding with their community partners concerning identification and response protocols. If there are no anti-trafficking organizations within one’s state, schools can refer to the 2020 report from the National Advisory Committee on the Sex Trafficking of Children and Youth in the United States, which provides information for states to improve their prevention and protection protocols. Through collaboration, communities can more effectively protect and support sex-trafficked children.

      In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

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