The coordinator of the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force welcomed an auditorium full of school administrators Tuesday to the statewide effort to stop those who sell children for sex.
“We’ve just recruited you into this army,” said Glen Parks, who coordinates the state task force organized in 2015. “There’s not one tell-tale sign. You’ve got to use your intuition ... this is a crime that happens in the shadows.”
Parks and Erin Aliano, a special projects coordinator of the Nebraska Alliance of Child Advocacy Centers who focuses on child sex trafficking, gave Lincoln Public Schools administrators a short course into that dark world and how to recognize signs that their students might be victims.
Look for changes in behavior, unexplained absences and truancies, she said. One of the good thing about educators is that they’re with students all day, so they may notice changes.
A student who was outgoing and participated in class and suddenly is quiet and timid could indicate something’s going on. Another possible sign: Students who typically can’t afford luxury items who suddenly have the newest iPhone or manicured nails, she said.
Such changes warrant a conversation. Maybe there’s a ready explanation -- mom got a new job, stomach flu kept them home. If not, it might be a sign that something else is going on.
Sex traffickers often “brand” their victims with tattoos, she said, and students reluctant to talk about new tattoos could be victims. Typically, Aliano said, people love to talk about their tattoos -- where they got them, what they represent.
“Something that makes your stomach go ‘ugh’ usually means something is not right here,” she said.
School is a safe haven for students, a place they sometimes come even when they’ve been reported missing to police, Aliano said.
She urged educators to be part of a cultural shift away from seeing children reported missing simply as runaways and instead as victims.
“Instead of asking ‘what did you do?’ (when missing), ask ‘what happened to you?’,” she said. “Look at the child first as a victim.”
She urged patience, said it’s important educators believe what students tell them and then get them help. LPS Security Director Joe Wright said if educators are worried something might be going on, or if a student discloses abuse to a teacher, they should contact him or the student services director so they can coordinate with child advocacy services and police.
“Understand that disclosing (abuse) is a huge step for these kids,” Aliano said.
Wright said he asked Aliano and Parks to speak during the annual LPS administrator days in an effort to coordinate with stepped-up efforts by Lincoln police and the state attorney general’s office to stop human trafficking.
“We want to get out in front of it,” he said.
The task force has focused primarily on training law enforcement and caseworkers and other service providers, but recognize the important role educators can play, Parks said.
“This is the kind of thing we would never say no to,” he said.
Teachers can also help educate students about how to be safe on social media, and what a legitimate job opportunity looks like -- and doesn’t.
Sometimes traffickers masquerade as salesmen, offering the young and vulnerable chances to sell magazines or other ways to make money that turn out to be something else entirely, Aliano said.
Traffickers target children at risk -- those who have been abused before, whose families are dysfunctional, or those who struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, Aliano said.
Much of the trafficking happens on social media. Traffickers use sites like Craigslist and Backpage.
The Human Trafficking Initiative on sex trafficking in Nebraska estimates 900 people a month are sold for sex online in the state, including 200 in Lincoln.
“We used to worry about who physically had access to our kids,” Aliano said. “Now we have to worry about everyone in the world having access to our children.”