It’s back to school time across the United States. In the most recent school year in Colorado, the Colorado Department of Education counted 911,536 PK-12 students enrolled in 1,900 schools across 178 school districts. Those students were supported by nearly 60,000 teachers and countless more support staff. Schools are one of the only places in a society where we have a unique touchpoint with almost every child. Because of that, teachers and education professionals are well positioned to support human trafficking prevention efforts and help child survivors. But in order for that to be a reality, school districts (as well as students themselves) will need more training and understanding of the crime.
While no one knows exactly how many children are trafficked every year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that there are around 1.2 million. This disturbing figure raises many questions. Which children are at highest risk of exploitation? Where is trafficking of children happening? And how can the education sector be involved in stopping it?
If school districts implemented mandatory human trafficking prevention trainings for students and educators, a new base of knowledge could empower Colorado communities to help end this human rights abuse.
Educators Positioned to Identify and Respond
Compulsory education laws in the United States require most children to attend school through at least age 16 (with notable exceptions for kids who are homeschooling). As a result, most children spend every weekday interacting with the same set of adults for at least eight hours. Teachers in these settings get to know their students through sustained interactions and are uniquely positioned to sense if something is amiss. School counselors, psychologists, and other support staff provide another layer of interaction and specialized support for kids. For years, professional educators have played an important role in the mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect. However, far too few have been trained to consider how suspected human trafficking might relate to that role.
From Rocky Mountain PBS “Sex trafficking of Children in Colorado Reaches Every Corner of the State”, October 2017
Colorado does not currently have mandated trafficking trainings for educators or students. However, some anti-trafficking nonprofits such as the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) facilitate these trainings when they’re invited into schools. LCHT’s Colorado Project 2.0 has identified mandated human trafficking trainings in local school districts as an innovative prevention tactic. If school districts implemented mandatory human trafficking prevention trainings for students and educators, a new base of knowledge could empower Colorado communities to help end this human rights abuse.
A National Trend: Train Educators About Human Trafficking
In several states, human trafficking education is compulsory for school staff. In 2017, Virginia mandated that their Department of Education release guidelines for human trafficking trainings in schools. In Kentucky, public schools are required to display information about the National Human Trafficking Reporting Hotline. School staff also have to be educated on human trafficking in Texas. Ohio school personnel are required to take human trafficking training as part of their safety and violence prevention program. Further, the Ohio Department of Health released a protocol for school nurses who believe they may be interacting with trafficking victims.
More than any other state, California has expanded human trafficking training within schools. The legislature passed a law in 2015 mandating that sex trafficking prevention education be included in public schools. In 2017, they extended this training to include labor trafficking prevention. Their most recent law also requires that school personnel be trained to identify signs of trafficking.
The federal government also emphasizes the role of schools in combating child trafficking. One report released by the U.S. Department of Education identifies the following responsibilities schools have to address child trafficking:
- Increase staff awareness and educate staff on the indicators and nature of the crime
- Increase parent and student awareness of the risks involved with trafficking
- Develop and clearly articulate district and school wide policies on and protocols for identifying a suspected victim or responding to disclosure from a suspected victim.
To address their first recommendation, resources exist to educate school staff on human trafficking. The U.S. Department of Education released a framework to help educators address trafficking in their schools in an informed and sensitive manner. Their report looks at risk factors related to child trafficking as well as behavioral indicators of sex and labor trafficking in children.
Tools For Students to Understand Human Trafficking and Exploitation
Any holistic approach to anti-trafficking in school districts should also engage students. Currently, several nonprofits host human trafficking training programs targeting youth. Some examples of education programs used in schools include:
- What: Empower Youth Program — seeks to encourage youth to have empathy for others and to teach them personal safety strategies
- How: Five-module training course, 25 minutes each (options to extend)
- Why: To empower youth to eliminate human exploitation
- Who: Youth in school over age twelve
- Project PAVE
- What: Colorado nonprofit working to prevent violence and end relationship violence
- How: Trainings facilitated by peer educators and community leaders
- Why: To empower youth to end the cycle of violence
- Who: Youth and families
- The Prevention Project
- What: Academic program that trains students on human trafficking in schools, after school programs, and youth groups
- How: Six sessions of approximately 45 minutes for high schools, two sessions of approximately 45 minutes for middle schools
- Why: To equip, educate, and mobilize communities to be a force in the global movement to end human trafficking
- Who: Teachers and students (middle and high school)
These programs show promise in the anti-trafficking field, but challenges remain. The above organizations, and many others, focus primarily on sex trafficking. This focus excludes labor trafficking which is also common among youth. Stigma surrounding sexual education may also impede some schools from allowing such programs to be implemented. Further, some less populated areas may simply lack access to qualified trainers who can facilitate these programs.
Despite these challenges, LCHT’s Colorado Action Plan 2.0 demonstrates the importance of designing and implementing sector-specific human trafficking trainings. In doing so, Colorado education professionals and students will be empowered to prevent and respond to exploitation.Leah Singleton is currently a senior at Florida State University studying International Affairs and Religion. She participated in the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking’s Leadership Development Program in the summer of 2019.