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Schools work to raise awareness of human sex trafficking

The Miami-Dade school district, together with federal agencies, law enforcement and social service groups, is working to raise awareness of human sex trafficking in an effort to prevent school-age kids from being lured into prostitution.

A new awareness campaign aims to train teachers and administrators on the warning signs. Principals were briefed on the issue before summer break, and the district is working on a campaign to educate students, too .

“It is our responsibility to be as smart and aware on social issues as we are with curriculum. It’s part of our job, and it should be part of our forefront to do whatever we can do to make sure kids are safe,” said Miami-Dade School Board Vice Chairman Lawrence Feldman, who proposed the new campaign.

He said the idea stems from what he’s seen as a 35-year veteran of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. But last week’s arrest of four Miami-Dade men accused of recruiting foster children from a group home to work at a Homestead brothel has underscored its importance. Some days, the foster girls would arrive at school, text or call their pimps to pick them up and ditch class for the brothel.

“This is just a the tip of the iceberg. It’s an indicator of what’s going on,” said Carmen Pino, an assistant special agent in charge of the human-trafficking division with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He did not work on the Homestead case, which is being prosecuted by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office.

Pino said ongoing cases and other information indicate that traffickers are focusing their attention on high school students, students in foster care and other vulnerable children.

Federal authorities say pimps manipulate other students to act as their recruiters on school grounds.

“A 20-odd-year-old person can’t have ready access to a high school or middle school or junior high, but if they recruit some boys to recruit on their behalf by offering them money or drugs, this is some of the evidence we’re starting to see,” Pino said. “The traffickers are having their little runners work for them.”

Unexplained absences and difficulty in attending school on a regular basis are some of the warning signs a child might be a victim of human trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“When a child doesn’t show up, and we send out a Connect Ed message, and the teacher sends out a letter, and we don’t hear from a child for two or three days, and we haven’t heard from a parent that the child is sick at home, I think it behooves us as administrators and teachers to take the next step — to find out why,” Feldman said.

When a student is absent, school employees try several ways to find out why: through Connect Ed messages, parent contact, home visits and parent conferences, said John Schuster, district spokesman.

The Miami-Dade School Board approved the new awareness campaign in May. Miami-Dade principals and assistant principals received a briefing on human trafficking, including what signs to watch for and whom to call. The district put general information on its website for teachers and parents. Feldman said he expects the program to be an ongoing effort.

The campaign involves several partners, including Kristi House, a Miami home that supports abuse victims; ICE; the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force, which includes law enforcement agencies, safety groups and nonprofits from all over South Florida. Kristi House helped put together information for principals and is expected to help create more professional development for school employees. The task force is also working on a community presentation, said Barbara Martinez, a federal prosecutor and coordinator for the task force.

Martinez said Florida is a hub of human trafficking of all kinds, including adults and workers. Every year, her office handles 8-12 such cases, most of them involving the domestic sex trafficking of minors.

In a 2011 Broward case, two teenage cousins ditched plans to party at a teen club and headed instead with two men to the “Boom Boom Room” in Oakland Park.

One of the girls, 14, was familiar with the spot, so her 16-year-old cousin agreed to go. At the house-turned-club, the older teen saw two other girls from school. There was dancing and alcohol, but it was not a regular teenage bash.

It was a brothel, federal prosecutors say. That night in April 2011, the 16-year-old girl had sex with three men, danced for tips and got paid $240 before she left at dawn.

Martinez said the traffickers target vulnerable children, including those in foster care, runaways and kids who are still living with their parents or have only left home for a short time — a new trend that has emerged over the past few years.

“People think of [human trafficking] as an international problem,” Martinez said. “It’s like anything else, once you open your eyes to it, it’s everywhere.”