What exactly is human trafficking? And how can school bus drivers play a role in stopping it?
Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, according to experts who discussed the issue during a webinar on Jan. 20. Incredibly, there are young victims of human trafficking who still attend school each day while being exploited nights and weekends.
In 2009, the nonprofit Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) began educating drivers in the commercial trucking industry nationwide on how to recognize signs of human trafficking.
Resources such as instructional videos and a hotline to report suspected cases have helped victims gain freedom from their abusers. The cause has since grown to include the transit, motorcoach and school bus industries via Busing on the Lookout (BOTL). Front line workers such as school bus drivers are in the unique position of noticing signs that a child may be at risk of being trafficked or is being groomed for the sex trade.
BOTL Program Specialist Lexi Higgins joined co-presenters Danny Papa of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and Liz Williamson of Truckers Against Trafficking to discuss the issue during the webinar.
“Imagine the potential impact if every single school transportation employee across North America were BOTL trained,” Higgins said. “It could change a child’s life. It might save their life. We know that school bus drivers care about the safety of the children they transport. Busing on the Lookout is committed to mobilizing that goodwill by providing members of the school transportation industry with the information and resources they need to understand human trafficking and how to take effective action if they are seeing signs of it on their routes.”
“Education is prevention,” Papa said. “Human trafficking can affect anyone, but everyone can become an expert at seeing and hearing the signs that can help vulnerable young people. Especially in the pandemic environment, there are many more students who are lonely, depressed, disengaged, and apathetic about their schoolwork. They’re craving relationships and contact with others, and predators use this to begin communication through social media.”
Predators have been known to be in contact with 50 to 60 youngsters at a time, posing as someone the victim’s age, with the goal of arranging a private meeting. Using mirroring language, such as agreeing about how much they hate homework or saying that they’re home playing the same video game, the predators can lure a young person into meeting them.
Papa told the story of a young woman who sent an inappropriate photo of herself to a predator and became a victim of “sextortion.”
“She was told that unless she met the man at the end of her driveway and performed a very specific sexual act, the photo would be shared with her parents, teachers, and friends,” Papa explained. “I’ve given talks to kids and asked how many of them have talked online or direct messaged people that they’ve never actually met. Almost all of them have engaged with someone that they thought was another person their age, but they had never met face-to-face.”
A Survivor’s Story
People often think of a human trafficker as someone who lurks in back alleys and lures unsuspecting children into a nondescript van. However, these kids could be on your school bus, and by all outward appearances seem like a typical family. Williamson with Truckers Against Trafficking shared her story.
“I’m a survivor of familial sex trafficking, which began when I was 6-years-old,” Williamson said during the webinar. “My family put a dollar sign on my dignity because of their greed. I grew up near Philadelphia. My mother was a nurse. My father worked in finance. I attended Catholic school, we went to church, I took ballet lessons. I looked like every other little girl walking around with her knee socks falling down. In reality, I was carrying a deep, dark secret, and believed the men who hurt me when they told me that it was all my fault. My mother told me I’d do these things if I loved her. Since she was a nurse, I never went to the doctor with my injuries because my mother took care of those at home.”
Williamson does fondly remember feeling safe in school and particularly on the school bus with her driver Mr. B., who was always kind to her. “Mr. B drove me for years,” Williamson recalled. “I’ll always remember his kindness to me, but he didn’t see through the excuses I had for the bruises and injuries or ask me why I was out a lot on Fridays or Mondays. No one looked past the surface back then, even when there were a lot of ‘uncles’ who picked me up from school with a note from my mother.
“If one person had asked me about my injuries, or having a pretty big family,” Williamson continued. “It might have been the opportunity for me to open up and tell an adult.”
BOTL Training Resources
Williamson suggested that school bus drivers like Mr. B don’t need to be social workers to be advocates for the children in their care. “He just needed to recognize the signs and know who to go to,” she added.
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Higgins pointed out that it may seem scary to take action and report signs of abuse or human trafficking. “That’s why it’s important to have protocols in place in school districts or bus companies so when drivers have that uneasy suspicious feeling that a child is in danger, they know who to go to,” she said.
Papa shared his views on specific human trafficking policies. “There’s a lot of work to be done with schools across the country. We strongly believe that every school should have a human trafficking coordinator who is educated on how to identify and report. Human trafficking is child abuse, but if it is only reported as child abuse, it may not be reported in the right manner so the proper investigation can take place. Even within law enforcement, there is some confusion about human trafficking, so this is an area that really needs to be developed.”
The Truckers Against Trafficking website offers many free resources for professional development and driver training, including a 30-minute documentary that can easily be implemented in driver training programs, and the organization has recently developed a new video specifically for school bus drivers.
Higgins encourages people to contact the organization with any questions. “BOTL is here to implement free training for all pupil transportation personnel,” she said.
- Watch the 30-minute training video, download the school bus training toolkit and other resources at https://truckersagainsttrafficking.org/pupil-transportation/
- Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for print materials
- For BOTL materials in Spanish or French Canadian: https://truckersagainsttrafficking.org/tat-materials-nonenglish/