Gaggle Speaks

Ideas, news, and advice for K-12 educators and administrators to help create safe learning environments.

Written by Lisa Railton
on April 6, 2021

Human trafficking impacts millions of individuals across the world each year—including here in the United States. But what exactly do we mean when talking about trafficking? Who are the victims? How can we help? And just how much of a problem is it?

To learn more about human trafficking—and how educators and parents can be more aware of ways children are targeted—we spoke with Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.). Founded in 2013, the organization works with experts to identify, rescue, and rehabilitate victims of trafficking in an effort to bring an end to child slavery.

Here’s what we learned:

What is human trafficking?
Human trafficking is a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex. The most detected form of human trafficking globally is sex trafficking, and forced labor is the next highest. Forms of exploitation vary widely across the world and may include trafficking for organ removal, forced marriage, exploitative begging, criminal activity, and more.

Individuals do not have to be physically transported to another location to be considered a victim of trafficking. Many trafficking victims are initially targeted online, while others are recruited by a family member, acquaintance, or intimate partner.

How pervasive is human trafficking in America?
Within the United States, Polaris Project has identified more than 25 types of human trafficking in a wide variety of industries such as carnivals, factories and manufacturing, commercial cleaning services, landscaping, and health and beauty services. Forms of exploitation include pornography, peddling and begging, illicit massage, forced labor, remote interactive sexual acts, and more. 

Government information estimates that at least 100,000 children are sexually exploited commercially each year in the country, and child sex trafficking has been reported in all 50 states.

What are you looking for when searching for signs of human trafficking?
There are numerous warning signs that can be an indicator of human trafficking. It is important to look at the totality of the circumstances, as a single indicator on its own may not be enough to warrant concern. As always, it is best to err on the side of caution when trying to determine if an individual is in danger. Some are easier to spot than others, and some are indicative of more imminent danger than others, but all are equally important to be aware of.

Each situation and story is unique, so it is important to be aware of what human trafficking really is and what it looks like. O.U.R. offers free online training to help you learn the signs of human trafficking and how to report them. 

Human trafficking victims often display physical, emotional, and behavioral warning signs. While not all traffickers resort to physical violence, it is not uncommon for victims to display evidence of abuse. Victims are often dressed inappropriately for their age or for the time of day and season. You can also look out for possession of large amounts of cash, fake identification cards, multiple cell phones, hotel keys, sexual paraphernalia, and slips of paper with dollar amounts and/or contact information.

Victims may appear fearful, anxious, and paranoid. They may exhibit submissive behavior, such as poor posture, downcast eyes, lack of eye contact, lack of facial expressions, and may be easily startled. They may look to their trafficker to speak on their behalf and may be unresponsive to attempts to communicate with them when they are alone. Victims may also display an unfounded fear, paranoia, and resistance to communicating with law enforcement, social workers, medical personnel, and other authority figures, often as the result of being threatened and/or brainwashed by their traffickers. 

What are some of the red flags for targeting that educators should be aware of so they can help educate students and parents about this issue?
Individuals most vulnerable to human trafficking in the U.S. include children in the welfare and juvenile justice systems, runaway and homeless youth, individuals seeking asylum, Native Americans, individuals with substance use issues, migrant laborers, persons with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and victims of intimate partner violence or domestic violence, among others.

Educators and others who are familiar with the potential victims' normal patterns of behavior and personality should look for a sudden change in grades, mood, hobbies, and language. Bragging about a new job, money, possessions, and an older boyfriend are also potential red flags. Look out for new sexualized behavior, illicit drug use, and affiliation with criminals.

Students and parents should also be educated about the dangers of online sexual grooming and abuse. Signs of online grooming may include unexplained gifts, receiving messages from a person the child only knows online, spending more time alone, not willing to share what they are doing online or becoming secretive, or a sudden increase in internet or social media use.

Can you tell me about the program you offer for school districts?
O.U.R. has created a program especially for students who want to make a difference: Students Against Trafficking. This initiative supports students of any grade, including at the university level, to spread awareness and support the cause! We offer different ways to get involved and want to help you every step of the way. We encourage students to utilize their talents and interests to make a difference in their communities. Some ideas we have seen from students include:

  • Creating an anti-human trafficking club at school
  • Screening our documentary, “Operation Toussaint
  • Hosting a school-wide 5K color run
  • Starting basketball tournament fundraiser
  • Setting up a school assembly about O.U.R. and internet safety
  • Having a bake sale or yard sale by neighborhood friends

While events during the pandemic may look different, there are many virtual options. To get started, contact the Students Against Trafficking team at and access resources on our Students Against Trafficking page. You’ll find everything you need here to create and run your own Anti-Trafficking Students Against Trafficking Club sponsored by O.U.R. through this website. 

Gaggle applauds O.U.R. for everything they are doing to combat this issue. From victim rescue and recovery to rehabilitation for survivors, O.U.R. is tackling exploitation and trafficking to help put an end to modern-day slavery.

How does Gaggle help protect students from predators? Read our East Irondequoit Central School District success story to learn how a Gaggle alert in this New York district led to a months-long investigation that resulted in the arrest and conviction of a child predator.

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