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More than 200,000 children and teenagers in the United States are victims of sex trafficking every year.1 If you are a concerned adult, read on to learn more about the signs of human trafficking in schools and students.

Students and Human Trafficking: A Story

She was a smart, athletic 17-year-old living with her single mother — who worked two jobs to pay rent and keep food on the table. She was popular at school and excelled at sports. Her friends and teachers never suspected she was secretly being trafficked by her own boyfriend.

It all started when she and her mother had a fight that left her feeling hurt and angry. That night, she packed a suitcase and moved into her 22-year-old boyfriend’s apartment downtown. A couple of weeks later, he told her she needed to start earning her keep — by having sex with his “friends.” When she refused, he threatened her safety and her reputation.

A few tricks quickly turned into several a weekend. Every time, her boyfriend would take all the money and use it to pay his bills and cover his drug habit. The threats to harm her mother and the fear of being arrested forced her to silently endure the abuse.

Understanding the Problem

Sex trafficking is a crime that often goes unseen and unpunished because of how difficult it can be to identify. Many children grow up believing lies about their lives. Some are told the abuse happens to everyone their age — that it’s “normal.” Others are too humiliated to tell the truth or too terrified to speak out against their abusers.

While 400,000 minors are victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. each year, according to a police officer we spoke with, minors are often controlled by pimps — who profit off their work — and forced to perform an average of 5–10 tricks (sex acts) per day.

It’s imperative for those of us working and interacting with young people regularly to see the signs of human trafficking in schools and elsewhere. And then to say something — to the right group of people — as soon as we do.

A Unique Opportunity

If you’re a teacher, administrator, coach, or you work with children in your community regularly, you have a unique opportunity in the fight against human trafficking. School personnel are the most common group to come into regular contact with young victims. More than likely, some of the students walking the halls of your school are secretly being abused at home or by someone close to them.

Kids at High Risk for Trafficking

While it’s true that any child or teenager can become a victim of sex trafficking, certain demographics are at higher risk than others. The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments identified the following list of factors that make young people more susceptible to being targeted by traffickers.

Those that…

  • Have run away from home or are experiencing homelessness
  • Are in the foster care system
  • Have an unstable home environment or a dysfunctional family
  • Lack social support
  • Lack personal safety
  • Have a history of sexual abuse
  • Have a history of dating violence
  • Are in the LGBTQ+ community
  • Experience chronic maltreatment and neglect
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Live in isolation
  • Live in poverty
  • Have a mental illness or learning disabilities
  • Show emotional distress

According to the National Foster Youth Institute, 60% of child sex trafficking victims are or have been in foster care or group homes. National Network for Youth reports that trafficking rates among youth and young adults experiencing homelessness range from 19–40%. These haunting statistics prove the vulnerability of young people who lack resources, a stable living environment, and ongoing love and support.

Signs of Human Trafficking in Schools2

You most likely won’t witness kids being forced into unmarked vans or money exchanges between students and shady-looking characters. Signs of human trafficking in schools are usually much less obvious. Watch carefully for the following behavioral indicators in kids and teens you spend time with daily. If you notice any, it’s time to start paying closer attention.

  • Unexplained school absences
  • An abrupt change in attire, behavior, or relationships
  • The presence of an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”
  • Travel with an older male or female who is not a guardian
  • Sudden presence of expensive material possessions
  • Chronic running away
  • Homelessness
  • Signs of psychological coercion, such as depression, anxiety, and/or an overly submissive attitude
  • Lack of control over his/her schedule, money, and/or proof of identification
  • Signs of physical trauma (like bruises, cuts, burns, or scars)
  • Tattoos or other branding marks
  • Poor health, as evidenced by sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition, or serious dental problems
  • Substance abuse or addictions
  • Selling drugs
  • Coached/rehearsed responses to questions
  • Uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior and/or references to sexual situations or terminology that are beyond age-specific norms

What should I do if I see the signs of human trafficking in schools?

First, find out what your school or organization’s protocol is so you know how to respond immediately if you suspect a student is being trafficked or abused. If your organization doesn’t have a protocol in place, here are several other ways to take action. Keep in mind that it’s ALWAYS better to be overly cautious and call the authorities when you have a gut feeling that something may be wrong.

Call the Right Numbers

Don’t Confront Suspected Traffickers

DO NOT contact the family if you suspect the child is being abused by a family member. NEVER attempt to confront a suspected trafficker or rescue a victim yourself; you could make a situation much worse for the child and put yourself in serious danger. Go to your local authorities and/or call one of the hotlines listed above instead.

Be Supportive

According to Harvard University, “The single most common factor for children who end up doing well is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or another adult.” Your support and kindness can mean the world to a vulnerable child or teenager. Continue to remind the kids in your life how much they matter and that you’re there for them if they ever need you. As a result, if something is bothering them or they’re in an abusive situation, they will feel more comfortable approaching you for help.

1Dore, Kelly. “Familial Trafficking in the US.” Human Trafficking Prevention Series, 25 Feb. 2019.

2National Center for Homeless Education, “Sex Trafficking of Minors: What Schools Need to Know to Recognize and Respond to the Trafficking of Students,” 2014. and Department of Education, “Human Trafficking of Children in the United States: A Fact Sheet for Schools,” 2013.

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