Parents should be knowledgeable about who their students are talking with online.
Hillsborough County Public Schools’ Human Trafficking Taskforce hosted an S.O.S.- Student Online Safety Town Hall meeting on Monday to educate students and families about this issue.
Parents have reason to be concerned. Florida is one of the top three states in the nation in reported cases of human trafficking every year.
That’s not a difficult statistic to believe. More than 200 people suspected of sex trafficking, prostitution and solicitation were arrested in Polk County last week as a result of a large sting operation. Last week, a Tampa youth pastor and a foster parent were arrested and charged with human trafficking after a mother contacted Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) after finding disturbing content on her 16-year-old’s cellphone. The pair had been talking to the teen for at least two years on an app called “Sniffies.”
The panel of experts shared their knowledge about how traffickers use cellphones to gradually groom minors for the nefarious exploitation of them for financial gain.
“It’s important for parents to be able to recognize the signs of human trafficking and how best to protect students from predators who work online,” said school superintendent Addison Davis. “It takes all of us to keep out children safe everyday.”
Panel members included: Lennard Principal Denise Savino, The NOMORE Foundation Anti-Trafficking Director Dotti Groover-Skipper, Paving the Way Foundation President Jan Edwards, Victims2Survivors- US founder and human trafficking survivor Connie Rose, Hillsborough County School Board Member Lynn Gray, Circuit Judge John Bowman, HCSO Corporal Ashley Lindeman and HCSO Major Chris Rule.
The following is a selection of questions and answers from the meeting.
What are the types of human trafficking?
Rose- There are so many types but social media networking sites are the primary target for our youth. Other types include labor trafficking in strip clubs, domestic servitude and classic sex trafficking just to name a few.
Bowman- The Polaris Project is a resource to learn more about the many types of human trafficking.
What are our kids dealing with today online?
Edwards- If there’s a chat feature on that app or video game, there are predators on that space. They are playing video games with people they don’t know. Be with your kids. Bark, a nonprofit fighting to eradicatre sex trafficking, put out a video where people go undercover, creating fake profiles online. Watch it during the day and don’t watch it alone. The fake profiles get pictures of body parts and texts every single day from people they don’t know. I was at a church and I shared this and found out later that two boys went to their youth pastor and said that happened to them. There are lawsuits against social media sites, parents are suing these platforms because of what they’re allowing on them. We’ve made it so normalized for our kids to take nude pictures, there’s actually a Florida Statute about that.
Savino- Students are on their phones 24/7. Now they’ve become immune to anything that comes in, they can’t decipher if it’s from somebody they know or somebody they don’t know.
We have to educate our kids in schools because we have to stop this. As long as they have phones, this is going to happen. We can’t miss this opportunity. I feel morally obligated to be on this committee. We need parents to step up and know what kids are doing on their phones.
What are some of the things that make our kids most vulnerable?
Edwards- We’ve educated almost 25,000 young people in the last six years. Lack of attention at home is the number one reason that makes them vulnerable. They all want to feel loved and feel connection. They’re going out seeking connection and where they go is right to their phones. Poverty and not feeling a sense of belonging at school are also contributing factors.
Savino- It’s important our students get connected to school. If they come home from school and go to their rooms and are on their phones all the time, that’s a sign. Talk to your kids to see what’s going on.
Rose- Cell phones have become the babysitter for our children. Please find a way to have family time, at dinner, in the car, find ways to connect with your children. They do feel invisible. Why? COVID changed the entire dynamics of how we interact with each other.
Groover-Skipper- It’s grooming over time versus kidnapping. Grooming means building a relationship with a student, building that trust relationship. Once that’s gained, maybe it’s the first time someone’s told them they’re pretty or smart or they’re proud of them so that’s preying on the vulnerability of that child. Once that trust is there, they say ‘well, if you love me, I need you to go do this.’
I’m on the PTA Board for an elementary school and we want to host a workshop. What advice can you give to persuade a hesitant principal to host it?
Edwards- The average age that online predators target our kids is 10 – 13 years old. Remember the numbers 17, 32 and 10. It takes less than 17 minutes to groom a child to send an inappropriate picture. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 32 million reports of suspected online child sexual exploitation last year. A 10-year-old commented that since she turned 10 her phone was being bombarded by direct messages from people she didn’t know. When asked if she had told her parents, she said no. Our community is screaming for this knowledge and information. I invite young people into the conversation and have this dialogue.
Do students drop out of school before they’re
trafficked or because they’re trafficked?
Rose- There are a lot of students being trafficked still going to school and living at home. You don’t want a student to have to experience what I experienced. I grew up thinking I was a prostitute. When people at my class reunion found out they said they new something was going on but didn’t know what they could do to help.
Edwards- There was a study done in Texas where they surveyed survivors and it found they’d been trafficked as teens; 55% were groomed and recruited in high school. This is an uncomfortable conversation and we get it. I’m with kids every day and this is what they are facing. I invite ya’ll to get your brave on. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable conversations with our kids.
Bowman- I think we also have to remember the big picture. Human trafficking knows no boundaries. It’s not a socio-economic crime because some victims are upper middle-class. It’s been a priest, a reverend, a teacher, a coach. You need to observe those relationships just as closely.
What are some red flag indicators and what should we be looking for?
Savino- At the high school level we generally see kids act the same. They’re usually hanging around the same kids and are in a routine. What worries us is when we see a kid that’s generally upbeat and then see a quick change in their behavior. When they stop acting the way they normally do, we’re all ears and eyes looking for why there’s that quick change in behavior.
Rose- If your kids are coming home with items you or they can’t afford, it’s a red flag. If they tell you they borrowed it from a friend, I hope you know that family. The grooming process is very expansive. A lot of folks believe most human trafficking victims are kidnapped but the reality is that the largest percentage comes from familial trafficking by a family member or family friend.
Name one action or step that people can take away from tonight.
Savino- You need to stay connected to your kids and let them know that nothing they’re doing is so bad that they can’t tell you. Your child has to know you love them unconditionally.
Groover-Skipper- Put the National Human Trafficking Hotline number in your phone (1-888-373-7888). You never know when you’re going to come across a situation, have the boldness and courage to call if you see something in the community.
Edwards- You kids need to know you’re human. Share a mistake you made when you were their age and how you overcame and worked through it. When you share a mistake they’ll realize they can come to you and have a conversation. Also, turn off the locator on your phone and make your pages private.
Rose- If your child comes to you with something, believe them. Give yourself a moment to breathe but take action.
Bowman- Be keen in your observations. The idea is that our children are subject to all different levels of media. It glorifies sex. For example, the movie American Honey is about a girl and her adventures over the summer but it’s really about a young lady that falls into a group of kids run by a sex trafficker and they get dropped off to have sex with construction workers. We need to look beyond what’s on the surface.
Lindeman- It’s never a good idea for your child to communicate with individuals that they don’t know. From a law enforcement standpoint, we care and genuinely want to help.
Rule- I will make a promise to you we’ll continue to fight this problem in the county but parents need to make me a promise to be nosy and involved with your kids.