Kate Miller, Virginia Free Citizen
Its 6-lesson academic curriculum “focuses on educating teens on the issues of human trafficking locally and globally, developing healthy safe awareness and boundaries, strengthening character and fostering leadership amongst the students,” program materials state.
“The goal of the Prevention Project curriculum is to prevent human trafficking, the sale and exploitation of human beings for profit, from occurring in our schools, among our nation’s youth.”
According to the US Department of Justice, the average age of entry for someone forced into sex slavery is between 11 and 14 for boys and girls, and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children states that 300,000 US children are thought to be at risk for sexual exploitation each year.
In addition, RJI explains that human trafficking is now the second largest criminal enterprise in the world, generating roughly $150 billion a year worldwide (International Labour Organization) with an estimated nearly 36 million modern-day slaves (Global Slavery Index 2014).
Richmond is one of 20 jurisdictions with the highest rate of human trafficking in the nation. RJI explains that one of the many reasons for this is that Interstate 95 and Interstate 64 intersect in the city, leading to a concentration in trafficking victims transported within the area.
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Jessica Willis, Director of Prevention Education for RJI, said prevention plays a key role in ending this crime.
Since the inception of Prevention Project curriculum, the program has spread into schools in Virginia as well to other parts of the country, including North Carolina, Texas and Oregon.
“The Internet has really changed this crime,” Willis said, adding that social media has become one of the greatest recruitment tools used by traffickers to lure their victims.
As the growing crime of human trafficking evolves with the changing times, RJI is working to keep teens aware of any potential trafficking threats.
“We have to make sure our education reflects that (changing trends in trafficking), so that we are providing the best education to our students and also equipping counselors and teachers with what is needed,” Willis said. “So our desire is to always make sure that the program is up-to-date and reflects the current trends that traffickers are using to lure students. We want to reach the students before traffickers do.”
Willis said one of the key reasons to support the implementation of the program in as many schools as possible is that RJI reached out to various individuals and organizations with extensive knowledge of human trafficking, including law enforcement officers and trafficking survivors, in developing the program curriculum.
Willis said trafficking survivors play a very valuable role in trafficking prevention by sharing what they wish they had known before they were lured into trafficking.
“No person can provide the perspective that a survivor can,” Willis said. “By providing their insights and sharing their stories, survivors are providing a gift to the world, which helps prevent trafficking”
Holly Austin Smith, a survivor of childhood sex trafficking, shares her experience with program students.
“Prevention education is one of the biggest parts of fighting human trafficking,” Smith stated in a press release, “especially because traffickers target teens and preteens, so you need to know what to expect and what to be looking for.”
One of the main initiatives of the Prevention Project, Willis said, is to reach out to educators as they go through the program with their students. She adds that RJI has received ‘wonderful’ responses from teachers.
“Having educators’ support and input is crucial,” she said. “Our goal is to reach as many students, parents and teachers as possible. We want to provide the resources for communities to be a force in preventing human trafficking.”
Willis said the program is designed to help teachers who are not knowledgeable about human trafficking easily share the program with their students.
As a result of what they learned through the program, the Prevention Project students have written newspaper articles, made videos, arranged film screenings, posted to social media and volunteered with RJI (including lobbying the Virginia General Assembly) to help in the fight against human trafficking.
Willis emphasizes that all Prevention Project students and teachers have the power to be part of the solution of ending human trafficking.
“Students want to make a difference,” Willis said. “I believe that every single person can make a difference. Anyone can use what they feel is their gift to help their peers and their family members be educated and stay aware. While we are able to measure the number of students and teachers we reach through this prevention education program, we can never measure the ripple effect of prevention education, as students can’t help but share what they have learned with their peers and family members.”
One student reported what so many have echoed: “I didn’t know a lot about human trafficking or how serious an issue it is before the Prevention Project program. After attending all the lessons and listening to the guest speakers, the Prevention Project really made the issue real for me. Now, I try to tell as many people as I can, whenever possible.”