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Combating Human Trafficking of Students in the School Bus Industry

KANSAS CITY — At the NASDPTS Annual Conference in late-October, human and sex trafficking of students and the role school bus drivers can play to report the crimes was discussed.

State directors who were at the well-attended session at the Crown Plaza Downtown, heard details of anti-trafficking efforts in many states, which are now well-underway.

Annie Sovcik, Esq. program director for Busing on the Lookout, discussed human and sex trafficking on Sunday at the NASDPTS Annual Conference in Kansas City. She reported on nationwide efforts to help school bus drivers, aides and school staff better identify and help students who are being trafficked.

Looking out for the “abnormal,” Sovcik stressed, plus who to call, are key. Trafficking is a crime against a person, while smuggling is a crime against a boarder, she explained.

One in four victims are under the age of 18, Sovcik reported. Trafficking is the second largest crime worldwide, topped only by drug smuggling, it is estimated, and ahead of weapons smuggling.

According to Sovcik, trafficking is a crime of power, control and greed. For instance, they involve false offers of employment, or expressing love. These are the most common hooks to capture younger victims, or threatening to call ICE. The victims may be completely fooled, she stressed.

Trafficking is an “everywhere problem” that happens in all 50 states, Sovcik said. In four out of 10 cases, commercial buses and school buses are used in some portion of the ongoing crime. The traffickers isolate the victims from their social support system, as a key methodology of maintaining control. She cited a Polaris study, that found that 26 percent of the cases included bus transportation of some kind.

Some victims will continue to attend schools, even when they are being trafficked at night, Sovcik concluded.

President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

Then earlier in the month, on Oct. 11, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein delivered remarks at the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. He noted that the U.S. Department of Justice “plays a central role in combating human trafficking. We initiate federal investigations, pursue criminal prosecutions, and seek lengthy sentences for perpetrators. Federal prosecutors, FBI agents and Deputy U.S. Marshals join in task forces with Homeland Security and Department of Labor agents, and with local and state police and prosecutors, to identify and rescue victims.”

He reported that the DOJ secured a record 499 human trafficking convictions in 2017, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. Then in April, the DOJ seized and shut down the international website, which facilitated sex trafficking. That action led to several companies and persons pleading guilty to federal charges.

DOJ also administers federal funding for trafficking victims, with $67 million devoted in 2017 to support housing, legal services and other necessary activities.

Rosenstein added that, “President Trump made clear that this Administration is taking a stand against human trafficking. The Department of Justice will continue to combat human trafficking and support survivors.”

On the same day, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao announced the appointment of 15 members to DOT’s new Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking, which have extensive experience in combatting human trafficking, she said. The committee, which is required by the Combating Human Trafficking in Commercial Vehicles Act, includes representatives from: trafficking advocacy organizations, law enforcement, trucking, bus, rail, aviation, maritime and port sectors, plus industry and labor.

The committee is tasked with submitting recommendations to Secretary Chao by July 3, 2019, which will include:

  • Strategies for identifying and reporting instances of human trafficking.
  • Recommendations for administrative or legislative changes to use programs, properties, or other resources owned, operated, or funded by the DOT to combat human trafficking.
  • Best practices for state and local transportation stakeholders, based on multidisciplinary research, and promising evidence-based models and programs. Those include sample training materials and strategies to identify victims.

What are the Warning Signs?

Training on the Busing on the Lookout program rolled out over the summer to Iowa school bus drivers. Officials there recently released a checklist of signs to watch for:

  • Unexpected, frequent absences from school.
  • Signs of neglect, appears malnourished or unkempt.
  • Bruises and physical trauma.
  • Signs of drug addiction.
  • Changes in attire, material possessions, unexplained gifts and all the latest gadgets. For instance, human traffickers will often groom their victims by showering them with attention, affection, and purchased items, in order to earn trust and affection.
  • Tattoos (a form of branding, displaying the name or moniker of a trafficker).
  • Fearful demeanor, uncomfortable with a certain individual or individuals.
  • Major changes in behavior, uncontrollable anger or crying, emotional highs and lows.

From the FBI’s point of view, the most noticeable signs of a likely victim are:

  • They do not hold their own identity or travel documents.
  • They appear to suffer from verbal or psychological abuse which intimidates, degrades and frightens.
  • They are not permitted to speak for themselves.
  • They appear nervous, especially if in the presence of their trafficker.
  • They are not allowed to move about by themselves, and seem to have little understanding of where they are.

Teresa Flores, a survivor and author, noted in Traffick Free, “[A]ttended school during the day alongside of her traffickers, only to be called into ‘service’ late each night while her unknowing family slept.”

Another survivor and activist, Laine George, said in The Mountaineer, “When I wasn’t in foster care, my school bus would drop me off at my mom’s strip club…. I would always ask, ‘Why didn’t anybody see? Why didn’t anybody notice?’”

Becoming More Involved

While most states have not yet formally begun anti-trafficking efforts in their schools, it does look like a solid foundation has been created. It appears that within the next few years, most states should become much more involved in the effort against human trafficking.

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