Educators being trained to watch for human trafficking

Human trafficking is seeping into the walls of classrooms in the Bay Area, so victim advocates are training school staff to watch for the signs.

Redefining Refuge, a nonprofit organization that helps trafficking victims, will train Hillsborough County middle and high school counselors and teachers on how to spot victims. 

“I don’t want to say that it’s going on in every school or every group home or what have you, but it certainly is going on,” said Natasha Nascimento, the executive director and founder of Redefining Refuge.

She says human trafficking happens in plain sight.

“A lot of the times, guidance counselors, they are our first responders. They are seeing children every single day, and a lot of the time our referrals are coming from that source,” said Nascimento.

Any child is at risk, no matter the child’s socioeconomic status. Predators use social media to start grooming them for human trafficking.

“I think as young as age 10. Really the reality is as soon as children pick up a phone and start accessing social media, education really needs to start,” said Derek Thompson, a regional advocate with More Too Life, an anti-trafficking nonprofit based in Sarasota that does outreach in the Bay Area.

Thompson said they recently trained teachers and students in Pinellas and Sarasota County schools, teaching them to look for signs like expensive accessories and an older boyfriend or girlfriend.

“When you start seeing patterns too, kids that were coming to school and being consistent and then they were disappearing for a couple of days at a time and then showing back up,” added Thompson about what school staff need to watch for.

Experts say, in some cases, victims are ordered to recruit their friends.

“We have seen a lot of the time where that is a child’s pathway to entry, being recruited by a friend or being recruited by a peer,” said Nascimento.

Trafficking is a cycle that victim advocates hope awareness will help break.

“Knowing the warning signs to look out for and being educated about it really can save lives,” Thompson said.

Some anti-trafficking nonprofits are also training school resource officers who can notice patterns from a law enforcement perspective. More Too Life is even working to launch an app for schools and students to use as a resource.