Special Education & Sex Trafficking Information for
School Social Workers & Psychologists
School Social Workers and School Psychologists play a critical role in supporting school staff, students, and parents. Often they identify barriers that hinder the students1 learning and then provide the support for accessing necessary support services. These staff contribute to helping the student have more success academically, socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.
After reviewing the Red Flags, note that these are characteristics all staff can watch for. If a student is experiencing one or more of these symptoms more than their usual behavior, pull them aside and check in with them. The student may be displaying Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) symptoms. ACEs are traumatic events that negatively impact health and behaviors in short term and long term circumstances3.
The brain grows and develops through interactions with family2. If these early interactions involve abuse and neglect, this can greatly impact the development of the child’s brain. Due to exposure to abuse and neglect, the brain learns how to adapt to aggressive or unpredictable events. When a student is continuously in fight or flight mode, this could create latent vulnerability2. Latent vulnerability is when early exposure to abuse and neglect from caretakers increases the students’ risk of mental health problems in the future2. This can affect how students interact with other students due to a lack of understanding positive social cues and be more likely not to trust people.
Other school staff supporting students may not know about the student’s home life, so it is important to recognize what makes special education students, in particular, vulnerable to victimization. Adverse Childhood Experiences can play a role, but victimization can also occur to someone who has a healthy and stable home life.
Vulnerability to Victimization
Special Education students vulnerability to victimization could be due to:
- Low self-esteem and low decision-making skills are risk factors to sexual vulnerability within romantic relationships and sexual interactions1.
- Misunderstanding of romantic relationships. Students with cognitive impairments need more support1 in understanding what romantic relationships are and the process. Through movies, music, TV shows, advertising, etc. Romantic relationships are typically portrayed one way, a heterosexual couple with stereotypical gender roles.
- Restrictive conversations at home about sexuality. There is a general assumption that when a conversation is avoided or not discussed, the student is protected. Parents may restrict their student’s information about sex education and intimacy1. However, when a conversation is not being had with safe adults, it does not mean that the student is not learning about it from peers and the media.
- Strong desire to be loved. As students are in school, they are watching their peers in how they may flirt or talk to a crush. A student in special education may be attracted to someone and have a strong desire to be loved [by them which] can increase unwanted sexual behaviors. Due to this gap in knowledge of boundaries, students are at risk of being manipulated and coerced1.
- A school social worker witnessed an instance of name calling (“bottom bitch”, “hoe”) towards another student. The names called are terms used in sex trafficking. The social worker knew the student calling names was a student with disabilities and the names used probably reflected language he heard from other students. This was an opportunity for the social worker to step in and explain that language is a form of abuse1. This will support the student from using these terms again, but also ensure the student won’t perceive this language as a positive. Knowing that some names have other meanings, such as a common term used in sex trafficking is “bottom bitch” (someone who is the trafficker’s favorite due to loyalty), it is important to steer students away from using these terms casually or unkindly. The expectation is that if a student is called a term used in sex trafficking, they would go to a safe adult.
- A school social worker witnessed emotional abuse occurring between two students. She noticed a student was telling another who they could be a friend1 to. This type of controlling behavior is an example of coercion. This belittles the student from being able to make their own choices. By promoting self-esteem within students, they can learn a healthy boundary of knowing they can make new friends.
- A social worker noticed an odd tattoo on a students arm, someone’s initials that were not the student’s initials. The social worker asked the student where they got the tattoo and they said it was from my boyfriend. The social worker asked the student to come talk to her in her office. Once the social worker recognized that this was a sex trafficking case, she involved the police.
Suggestions for practice in the schools
- Integrate individual and group education and counselling services1 with students with and without disabilities. These sessions can address self-esteem, self-advocacy skills, include guest speakers/group members sharing victimization1 to make sessions more personable and relatable, and utilize videos to identify behaviors that may be appropriate or inappropriate1.
- Disability, Intimacy, and Sexual Health by Kristen Faye Linton, Heidi Adams Rueda, and Lela Rankin Williams
- Anna Freud NCCF. (2020, September 16). Childhood Trauma and the Brain [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYBUY1kZpf8
- Public Health Network Cymru. (2017, November 6). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHgLYI9KZ-A