With back-to-school around the corner, education is on our mind at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. Schools are one of the few places in society where professionals have a unique touchpoint with every child, outside their home environment. Because of that fact, teachers, administrators, and staff members are uniquely positioned to identify and respond to potential human trafficking situations. They’re able to identify the barriers that students from underserved communities may be facing and recognize changes in behavior among their students that may indicate they’re at risk. But in order for that to happen, widespread training across schools in Colorado and staff working in each of those schools is a must.
The vulnerabilities of youth to human trafficking
Globally, Save the Children estimates that children make up 27% of all human trafficking survivors. While human trafficking can happen to anyone, youth are more vulnerable than adults. In particular, youth who are involved in the foster care system, are experiencing homelessness, identify as LGBTQ+, are BIPOC individuals, have mental health challenges, are using substances, or are victims of child abuse face a much higher risk of experiencing exploitation. Traffickers leverage these vulnerabilities to create a sense of dependency.
In Colorado, youth have been identified as victims of human trafficking. In particular, Denver has a disproportionately large number of youth experiencing homelessness in urban centers, a risk factor of exploitation. Plus, much of the state is used for agriculture, ranching, and tourism, necessitating seasonal and migrant workers, another factor that contributes to trafficking vulnerabilities.
You may have seen in the news recently that child labor laws are being changed and rolled back in certain states. Or maybe you saw the story published about a cleaning service In Virginia that put children as young as 14 years old in a debt bondage situation. One teenage victim reported a two-year period that they were forced to work 11-hour overnight shifts before attending their high school classes.
Children repeatedly missing school or showing up late and tired are red flags that educators can be trained to look out for. The effort must begin by providing them with more knowledge and prevention trainings about human trafficking, where it’s happening, who’s at risk, and what can be done to stop it.
Existing trainings aren’t enough to keep kids safe
All professionals who work with children are required to complete mandatory reporting training so that they can recognize signs of child abuse and neglect. While human trafficking is now a part of this training, it’s only a brief overview of the complex issue. Much more training is needed for educators to be empowered with the knowledge they need to keep kids safe.
Amanda Finger, Executive Director and Co-founder of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking explains, “These trainings totally vary throughout the state, district to district. So the same information on human trafficking is not being delivered, if delivered at all, and is not even required on an annual basis.”
Furthermore, it’s important to train not only teachers, but every professional who works in a school setting. Bus drivers, office managers, lunchtime cooks, janitorial staff — everyone who encounters youth in their everyday job has a role to play in protecting students. They interact with kids outside the classroom, get to know them well, overhear conversations, and can sense if something is amiss. Mandated anti-trafficking training in Colorado school districts would be a powerful force to protect youth.
Education is a statewide priority for the anti-trafficking movement
The education sector has been identified as a priority for the Colorado Human Trafficking Council. Executive Director and Co-founder Amanda Finger is part of the Council’s Education Task Force, which is prioritizing curriculum for teachers and students, particularly middle schoolers. It will assess the availability of anti-trafficking training, services, and resources provided around the state to teachers and students.
While it’s not yet required in Colorado, schools can ask nonprofits like the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking to facilitate an anti-trafficking training for administrators and staff members. In 2022, our team trained 184 teachers and school staff throughout Colorado. (Students themselves were trained, too. Last year, 610 high schoolers and 266 university students completed an anti-trafficking training.).
Kara Napolitano, Research and Training Manager at LCHT, reflects, “Since LCHT started facilitating human trafficking trainings more than a decade ago, we have seen an increase in requests for resources and trainings from Colorado teachers, child welfare agencies, healthcare professionals, law enforcement agencies, and victim service providers because of real scenarios they’ve flagged as problematic.”
LCHT’s training sessions for educators are specifically designed to address the landscape of this issue in Colorado and how human trafficking might present itself in a school setting. They equip educators to consider the complex issues that put students at risk, including generational trauma, unstable living situations, and emotional vulnerability. Our team explains how to identify if a student is being exploited for sex or labor, how to respond appropriately, and what local resources exist to provide support. Adds Kara, “All of our trainings are the culmination of everything we’ve seen and heard from partners and survivors over the last ten years.”
With more than 55,000 teachers across the state of Colorado supporting more than 883,000 students, we still have a long way to go (Source: Colorado Dept. of Education). “Because the youth population has regular contact with school-based professionals, it is vital that they receive this training,” says Kara. Mandatory prevention training statewide could create a new base of knowledge in Colorado schools and help end this human rights abuse in our communities.
Working with youth as a trusted adult is an important role. It’s an opportunity to earn their confidence and protect their vision of a bright future. We sat down for an interview with Mitch Peritz, a Colorado State University Master of Social Work student with a focused emphasis on human trafficking and one of our Leadership Development Program participants. His experience with a youth foundation led to his work in the anti-trafficking movement. Most recently, Mitch presented to us his ideas on how to build a peer-to-peer trafficking prevention program, which is currently underway! Here are highlights from our conversation:
Educators play a crucial role in ending human trafficking
As frontline professionals, educators are a critical component in the effort to end human trafficking. With specialized training, teachers and school staff gain the ability to recognize signs of vulnerability among their students and potential indicators of exploitation. By understanding the root causes and behavioral cues associated with trafficking, educators become empowered to intervene early and contribute to the prevention of this terrible crime.
EXTRA CREDIT: How to support the youth in your life
While system-wide change will take time, there are things you can do today to keep the kids in your life safe. Whether you have school age kids yourself or interact with youth in a professional setting, have proactive, open conversations with them. Talk to them about online safety, being aware of strangers on social media, and protecting their personal information.
Additionally, when young people you know are searching for work, share these core ideas with them:
- If you do the work, you should be paid in a timely manner as promised (not six months later, for example).
- You should be able to get a copy of your pay stub and know exactly what each deduction is for.
- If someone offers you a job that feels too good to be true, it most likely is.
- Finally, make sure the young people in your life know that they can always come to you for help. Let them know that no matter what the circumstances are, and even if they made a mistake or feel ashamed, you will be there for them.
Are you interested in getting your team trained? Whether you work in a school setting or another sector, learn how human trafficking intersects with your profession and what to do when you suspect an exploitative situation.