Preparing our youth for academic rigor and societal challenges is the driving force of our academic institutions. As we learn more about human trafficking and how traffickers groom young boys and girls in order to exploit them, we must provide our educators with the tools to help identify suspicious behavior and position our children to be resilient against coercive methods. The State of California, often seen as a leader in counter-trafficking policies, has begun applying a novel approach – to fostering greater public awareness and attempting to instill resiliency in their youth by mandating anti-human trafficking in junior and senior high school curricula.
The term “human trafficking” can be jarring and too often is a loaded phrase used for political purposes. This is done because it invokes a visceral reaction. Unfortunately, many of the connotations the public conjure are cultural stereotypes, gender or ethnic bias, or Hollywood-based hysteria and hyperbole. Approaching this issue from a fact-based lens, assessing and addressing root causes, and then building a resiliency response from a practical application perspective can help put our children in a position to repel inappropriate and harmful interactions.
Human trafficking is best described as the despicable sexual or labor exploitation of others for profit through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. This kind of activity decimates the lives of the trafficked, fractures families, and exploits the victim’s body and labor as a continual source of revenue for a trafficker. Traffickers seek out vulnerable populations, typically using techniques of physical and psychological abuse – utilizing fear and intimidation to exert control over their victims. Some traffickers may keep their victims under lock and key, while others use less obvious methods, specifically debt bondage – asserting erroneous financial obligations wherein the victim feels honor-bound to satisfy a dubious debt. Traffickers are men and women of all races and nationalities. Like perpetrators of sexual assault and abuse, they may know their victims as family members, intimate partners, or acquaintances; however, they can also be strangers. Victims can be any age, from the very young to much more senior. They come from all socioeconomic strata and ethnicities.
School-based prevention and intervention programs are powerful tools in the fight against human trafficking as educators, school counselors, and other staff may be among the first to identify signs of vulnerable youth and exploitative coercion.
Human Trafficking Prevention Education and Training Act (HTPETA)
On October 7, 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1227, the Human Trafficking Prevention Education and Training Act (HTPETA). HTPETA’s passage made California the first state to adopt human trafficking prevention education training for both teachers and students.
Championed by then Assembly member and now California Attorney General Rob Bonta, HTPETA integrated trafficking into 3 primary sections of the Education Code:
Part 1: Frequency of Instruction
California Education Code Section 51934 (a): Each school district shall ensure that all pupils in grades 7 to 12, inclusive, receive comprehensive sexual health education and HIV prevention education from instructors trained in the appropriate courses.
Each pupil shall receive this instruction at least:
Once in junior high or middle school, and
At least once in high school.[i]
Part 2: Content of Instruction
California Education Code Section 51934(a)(10), Information About Sexual Harassment, Sexual Assault, Sexual Abuse, and Human Trafficking was amended to require human trafficking prevention education that includes all the following:
Information on prevalence, nature, and strategies to reduce the risk of trafficking;
Techniques to set healthy boundaries, and;
How to safely seek assistance.[ii]
Part 3: Continuous Training
California Education Code Section 51950(f): Sexual Abuse and Sex Trafficking Prevention Education provides;
o In-service training may be conducted periodically to:
enable school district personnel to learn about new developments in the understanding of abuse, including sexual abuse, and human trafficking, and;
receive instruction on current prevention efforts and methods.
o (f) continues: A school district is encouraged to include training on early identification of abuse, including sexual abuse, and human trafficking of pupils and other minors.[iii]
California’s policy and social experiments often become the foundational model upon which other governments follow. Traffickers prey upon the dreams and fears of the vulnerable. A comprehensive “whole-of-government” approach to fighting exploitation involves strong public awareness, competency and knowledgeable youth. Instilling the confidence to enforce personal boundaries is crucial to a sense of self-worth and empowerment. California is attempting to formulate a systematic and structured response to protect those susceptible by giving them the tools to identify exploitative behavior before they find themselves coerced or beholden to an exploiter. Combating human trafficking demands a broad multi-tactic approach. It requires more than just harsh penal punishment for perpetrators. It demands applying a nuanced understanding of the criminal activity to prevent victimization.
Educators are uniquely positioned to recognize and help immunize our youth from exploitation. An implicit component of this public education social contract is that we provide our educators with the skills and tools to be successful. As a practitioner in this field, it is incumbent upon me to be responsible with my messaging and content and to ensure my curriculum is research-based and the tone is resonating and appropriate for my audience. As the California school system is in its infancy of this new journey, I expect them to do the same – ensure the message is appropriate for the listener – be it student or faculty. The global pandemic created by COVID-19 delayed the full implementation of this curriculum; however, I anxiously await to see how this new aspect of youth empowerment develops. ❦
[i] California Education Code Sec. 51934(a), https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=51934.&lawCode=EDC
[ii] California Education Code Sec. 51934(a)(10), https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=51934.&lawCode=EDC
[iii] California Education Code Sec. 51950, https://california.public.law/codes/ca_educ_code_section_51950
About Benjamin Thomas Greer
Emergency Management Instructor, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES);
Research Associate for the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking (CCARHT);
Master’s Degree from Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security Program (NPS-CHDS).