Newport News police officers will be teaching high school students signs to help them avoid and prevent human trafficking.
Hampton Roads was one of two sites across the country selected to pilot the federal program, which is being called TraffickSTOP.
The program has two parts: Training law enforcement officers to teach the program to students, and educating teenagers on the dangers of human trafficking and how to avoid it, according to a news release from Virginia’s Attorney General’s Office. Newport News school resource officers will lead the program in partnership with the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force.
“The sad reality is that unscrupulous people will prey on young, impressionable people, which is why it’s so important that Virginia’s youth are armed with the tools they need to help protect themselves and others,” outgoing Attorney General Mark Herring said.
According to Anti-Trafficking International, the average age of exploitation in the U.S. is 12-15 years old, but children as young as 3 months old have been sold into trafficking. An estimated 100,000 children are trafficked each year in the U.S.
The U.S. Justice Department defines human trafficking as “a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts.” Any time a minor is used for commercial sex it’s considered to be trafficking.
The goals of TraffickSTOP are to strengthen the partnerships among school resource officers, the regional task force and the local school divisions while teaching children how to identify and prevent trafficking. Students will also learn about healthy relationships and online safety.
The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that fights human trafficking in North America, found that the internet is the primary way human traffickers find victims. The pandemic has increased online recruitment by 22%.
The organization says that victims may have personal relationships with their traffickers. In 2020, the proportion of reported victims recruited by a family member or caregiver reached 31%, which was up from 21% the previous year.
Other school districts, including Norfolk, will receive resources and a curriculum that was created by the National White Collar Crime Center and other organizations.
The Polaris Project identified 10,583 human trafficking situations in 2020 with 16,658 victims in the U.S. The most common types of trafficking were escort services, pornography and sex and labor trafficking hidden in businesses that offer spa services, according to the nonprofit.
The Hampton Roads task force has opened 337 investigations, made 135 arrests, identified 227 confirmed victims and prosecuted 38 cases in the region since it launched in 2017, according to the news release.
Herring secured a $1.45 million grant to create the task force, which is a collaboration including the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Virginia State Police and law enforcement agencies and prosecutors from Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Portsmouth.
Jessica Nolte, 757-912-1675, email@example.com