Experts highlight the role of schools in identifying human trafficking

What should you do when you suspect a child is being trafficked? A Jan. 31 webinar hosted by the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments sought to answer that question and provide educators with resources and guidance in navigating this sensitive topic.

Throughout the panel discussion, experts repeated that the first step is likely something educators are already striving for: become the safe, approachable adults that students feel comfortable in confiding what is happening in their lives. That will better enable educators to feel confident in reporting suspected trafficking and supporting young people.

“We can’t accurately and appropriately respond if students don’t feel safe enough to come forward and to engage with us during the response process,” said Kimberly Casey, communications and prevention specialist in the Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons.

“As we’re talking about creating a safe environment, that really starts before any type of abuse or exploitation occurs — or before we know that that is happening. So, really encouraging our school-based professionals to regularly check in and build rapport with students through regular direct communication … so that when something is happening or when a conversation needs to happen, they feel comfortable enough to share that personal information. In this particular situation, with human trafficking, we are talking about very intimate and significant forms of abuse and violence that someone may not feel comfortable speaking with to a stranger. So really building those relationships in advance.”

Casey discussed the importance of being sensitive to the student’s complex feelings around their experience and maintaining the child’s privacy to the appropriate extent.

For instance, educators know that as mandated reporters there are limitations to maintaining privacy, but it’s crucial to make sure these types of delicate conversations are happening in private, neutral and comfortable environments.

“Oftentimes, we’ve found these conversations happening in a hallway pull aside, where other students can maybe overhear the situation. Sometimes the conversation is taken to a principal’s office, which may not inherently feel like a supportive situation, since we all know the threat when we were children of going to the principal’s office was one where you were in trouble,” Casey explained. “We know that often people who are experiencing trafficking are fearful that they’re doing something wrong and will be punished for the exploitation that they’ve experienced. Sometimes having a conversation outside where you can take a walk, where that direct view, you don’t have to make eye contact when having these types of conversations, we’ve really seen help in those situations. Even asking the student what they would feel most comfortable with could be helpful in this particular situation.”

San Diego County protocols

As local educational agencies build a human trafficking response protocol, the ultimate goal should identifying students that may be experiencing trafficking and helping to connect students with service providers and programs that are intended to support them in leaving their situation of victimization or preventing further exposure to violence, while ensuring that the students and school staff responsible for reporting are taken care of throughout the process, Casey said.

It’s a tall order, but LEAs are already doing this work and providing examples of best practices. The federal Human Trafficking Youth Prevention Education (HYPE) Demonstration Program has funded LEA efforts to implement human trafficking prevention education with staff and students, and develop human trafficking school safety protocols to ensure that students who disclose or staff who believe that students may be at risk or experience trafficking have the resources and support that they need to proceed safely.

As one of the original eight grantees for HYPE funds, San Diego County had to break down silos and establish better communication across agencies to truly support young people, said Charisma De Los Reyes, San Diego County Office of Education Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program coordinator.

Education officials collaborated with local law enforcement, child welfare and others to ensure protocols were practical and best ensured student safety, and identified a liaison specially trained to support the school staff if they come forward with something concerning.

The Human Trafficking School Safety Protocol goes beyond human trafficking prevention education and training for staff, De Los Reyes said. “One of the things that’s part of our protocol is consistent contact thereafter,” she said, noting the tightrope walk of providing services or referring a child out to local resources while ensuring their safety and privacy with support from local agencies investigating a report of trafficking. “It’s the check-ins … making them feel this is a safe space, you are here to learn, to be a ninth-grade student. That consistency and check-in and coordination and communication between all the partners.”

More Information

For more information and resources, visit the following webpages dedicated to human trafficking: U.S. Department of Education Human Trafficking webpagethe U.S. Department of State’s Human Trafficking webpage; and the ACF’ Office of Trafficking Persons’ webpage.