By Mike Marsee
Behind the scenes and in the shadows, in cities and rural areas, human trafficking is taking place every day.
The signs of human trafficking can be found in schools as well, and officials with the Kentucky Department of Education are working with a statewide task force to help educators know what to look for.
Raising awareness has been a priority for the Kentucky Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force since its creation in 2013. Rae Burgess of KDE’s Division of Student Success, one of KDE’s representatives on the group, said that’s an ongoing process in schools.
“Every place we’ve held trainings, there are educators sitting in the room going, ‘Wow,’” Burgess said. “I think what is so heartening about it is that everybody wants to help. But there is that lack of awareness across the state.”
Human trafficking takes one of two forms: sex trafficking or labor trafficking. There are certain red flags that educators can watch for that might indicate that a student is being trafficked. For example, the student might:
- Exhibit changes in behavior or in participation in school;
- Act out or sometimes appear meek or scared;
- Have a history of homelessness or frequent address changes;
- Have “branding” tattoos;
- Carry multiple cell phones, gift cards or cash cards; or
- Use lingo that might be common to the commercial sex industry.
In cases investigated by the attorney general’s office in 2017, all of the sex trafficking victims were female, while all of the labor trafficking victims were male. Children of any age could be involved in human trafficking.
Much of the activity takes place in urban or suburban areas or along Kentucky’s interstate highways, but Burgess said it occurs in small towns as well.
Mandy Otis, who works in the attorney general’s Office of Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Prevention and Prosecution and coordinates the statewide task force, said a great deal of work has been done to raise awareness, but there is still much to do.
The attorney general’s office and Catholic Charities of Louisville, which co-chair the task force, conducted 80 trainings on human trafficking across the state last year, reaching 3,448 people, including educators and students. Otis said trainings held this year have reached more than 2,600 people since January.
“I would like to see more training among specifically teachers, counselors, family resource coordinators, but we have done quite a bit of that already,” Otis said.
Burgess and Victoria Fields, who also represents KDE’s Division of Student Success on the task force, said they have conducted a number of trainings as well, particularly through the state’s education cooperatives.
“It’s mostly on awareness: what it is, that it’s happening in Kentucky, that it is affecting our students,” Fields said.
One important step toward raising awareness that the task force is taking involves the development of a reporting protocol for educators, a soon-to-be released document that tells educators how to spot possible victims and how to report suspected human trafficking.
“It’s an easy one-page document that spells out, ‘This is what you need to look for, this is who you need to contact and this is how you need to conduct yourself if you are involved in that process,’” Fields said.
School administrators already have been given some guidance in those areas, but Fields said the new protocol document is intended for all school personnel.
“It should be published soon, and it’ll be a priority for us to push that protocol out,” she said.
House Bill 524, passed this year by the General Assembly, mandates the posting in all schools of a sign prominently displaying the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The signs are available in multiple languages.
“In my child’s school, when I walk into the front office those signs are right there on display in English and Spanish,” Otis said.
Fields said she would like to find a way to flag students who are at risk of becoming missing children through Infinite Campus, perhaps by identifying students who have changed schools often or been reported missing multiple times.
“That has been a goal we’ve had in mind, if somehow we could work with Infinite Campus to create a warning,” she said. “I think that would be very helpful, maybe if it sends a warning to directors of pupil personnel or principals.”
Fields said she and Burgess work with missing children on a regular basis, and it’s very likely that some of them are being trafficked. In fact, one in six of the 18,500 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2016 were believed to be sex trafficking victims.
“You just can’t ignore the fact that the kids are coming across our desk every day, and most likely some of them are involved in this,” she said. “We want to do whatever we can to help out.”
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