Special Education & Sex Trafficking
Q & A
Are children in special education classrooms really more at risk for sex trafficking?
Research has shown that about 22% of victims of sex trafficking have identified being in a special education classroom at some point. It is unclear whether these individuals were in a special education classroom due to having a learning, language, emotional, cognitive, or physical disability, or if it was due to falling behind in school, due to frequent moves from one school to another, excessive absences, being in foster care or transitional housing, etc.
What can a special education teacher do if I suspect a child in my classroom is being groomed?
If it is an emergency and the special education teacher suspects the individual is in immediate danger, call 911. If it is not an emergency, the special education teacher is encouraged to speak to the child and ask general questions, such as, “Is that a new bag? Where did you get it?” If the individual shares information that continues to point towards grooming, if the school has a protocol established, follow those steps, or contact your school counselor or administrator.
How can I educate parents to look out for signs of possible involvement in sex trafficking?
A special education teacher can help educate parents to look out for signs of sex trafficking situations by providing a link to this website and sharing the Parent Brochure in either English or Spanish.
What are the risk factors or vulnerabilities for SPED students that can lead to becoming a victim of sex trafficking?
Special education students have vulnerabilities and are at a higher risk for becoming victims of sex trafficking. These are some of those:
- Special education students, especially those with cognitive or physical impairments are often assumed to not be sexually active or even interested in sex.
- Many special education students have a limited understanding of healthy romantic relationships.
- Communication challenges very frequently accompany other disabilities impairing a student’s ability to express themselves, retell events, or understand social situations and language.
- Students with disabilities are typically seen as being less credible witnesses by law enforcement due to their disability. This is further complicated by the higher incidence of communication challenges preventing the child from being able to clearly express or understand events.
What are the warning signs or red flags indicating a student may be engaged in sex trafficking?
Within schools, red flags that staff can watch for are the following. If the child is experiencing one or more of these symptoms more than their usual behavior, pull them aside and check in with them.
- Academic: unengaged in class; grades slipping; unengaged in extracurricular activities; missing class/skipping school; answering phone in class
- Behavior: avoids eye contact; more tired than usual; gaps in memory; change in general personality
- Physical: visible scars/bruises; unusual tattoos; appears to be malnourished; signs of drug or alcohol use; materialistic items that you know are not in the student’s funds (expensive clothing, expensive backpack/purse, new phone, nails painted, etc.)
Is always wearing the same piece of jewelry, such as a necklace, bracelet or ring that has a charm or symbol on it. Rather than a tattoo to brand a victim, traffickers may also use “soft branding” by having their victims wear their brand on a piece of jewelry. The student will be very attached to the piece of jewelry, as it is seen as a gift/token from her “boyfriend” and is a sign of loyalty to him.
- Emotional: low self-esteem; sudden outbursts of anger; showing signs of depression, anxiety, fear
- Social: older romantic partner; lives in unstable housing; isolating or distancing self-more than usual
What role does social media play in sex trafficking?
Social media plays a very impactful role in recruitment for sex trafficking. Students use social media as a way to meet new people, make new friends, and share about their lives and struggles. When the proper app settings are not established, like having a public account versus a private account, the result is an increased degree of vulnerability of the accounts to predators. Additionally, if students do not understand how to use and implement protective online boundaries, this could result in sharing personal information that could be used by a predator or sex trafficker to personally identify a student leaving them vulnerable to fraud, threats, coercion, or force. For example, Snapchat has a setting that can make a profile public or private. When the public setting displays the individual’s location on a live map,the settings allow the location to be seen by the public, only by certain individuals, or seen by no one. Depending on the settings, anyone can subscribe to someone’s public profile and see any public information that is available on Snapchat.
Traffickers take advantage of social media to see posts that indicate a student is vulnerable, such as, “UGH! I hate my parents! They are so annoying. I just want to get out of here.” Traffickers see these posts and take it as an opportunity to respond and begin to build a relationship with the individual. The grooming starts with developing relationships that become a friendship leading to a romantic interest.
Many platforms, such as Instagram, lack accountability and transparency about what they are doing to protect kids on their platforms. Without accountability, they are slow to respond to even federal demands to implement safety protocols. This means that there is no guarantee that the platforms have put algorithms in place to detect recruiting behavior, and even when recruiting behavior is occurring on a platform, there is no guarantee that reporting the behavior will result in any action by the social media platform. Even private accounts are not necessarily safe. A trafficker can request to follow a private account, which initiates curiosity and can result in contact.
What is the age range for sex trafficking?
Sex trafficking can occur at any age, but research shows that the average age for sex trafficking is approximately 15 years old.
What are some basic prevention skills special education teachers can teach their students so they are less vulnerable?
Special education teachers can help to reduce vulnerabilities in SPED students by teaching students how to strengthen and create healthy relationships/friendships and boundaries and by explaining what those things look like and mean to each person individually.
For example, in the classroom, special education teachers can:
- Establish a classroom culture of trust, understanding, and safety.
- Provide lessons on supporting positive self-image and self-esteem.
- Implement a social emotional learning program and emphasize the development of social skills and building healthy relationships.
- Share with students why it’s important to turn off location services. Teach the “why” personal information should never be shared online.
- All teachers should promote, “If you HEAR something or SEE something, SAY something.” Teach how this is how friends can truly help their friends and peers by telling a trusted adult about concerns.
- To learn more about victims of sex trafficking, review the Case Studies at http://projectstarfish.education/case-studies/ .
- Consider the lesson plan on sex trafficking at http://projectstarfish.education/lesson-plans/ but check with your administrator before teaching.
- Work with your administrators and school to strengthen school based programs that teach healthy relationships, bullying prevention, and interpersonal violence prevention. Work with your school to assure special education students are included and the curriculum accommodations and modifications are in place for all students to access the information.
Learn More About Sex Trafficking
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