When Students are Targets: Educators, staff battle wide reach of predators

Through a public education campaign in Prince William County schools, 238 students have been identified as at-risk, sexually assaulted, groomed or a victim of human trafficking since 2013.

The school division offers a lesson on human trafficking to ninth graders, as well as a pilot program for some middle school students, said Mary Ellen Smith, human trafficking prevention specialist with Prince William County Public Schools. 

Following the lesson, students fill out a survey that asks if they want to speak to a social worker. Hundreds have taken up the opportunity for a variety of reasons, and the school division says 238 are getting support services related to sexual assault or human trafficking concerns.

Human trafficking is defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as the use of force, fraud or coercion in order to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.

Smith spoke at an annual human trafficking symposium held Jan. 29 that was sponsored by the Greater Prince William Human Trafficking Task Force and the Greater Prince William Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Council. 

She noted one student who disclosed that she was sold on Facebook starting when she was 10 years old.

“Due to coordinated case management, the student received mental health support, maintained her grades and attendance and is involved in school activities,” Smith said. “Her traffickers were arrested.” 

TARGETING TEENS

Smith said traffickers are manipulative, doting on the person they’re targeting with time and attention and promising them money, gifts or a better life. 

Contact can begin on social media or through gaming devices, Smith said. 

“It’s not just at the mall,” she said. “If your kid has a cell phone, they’re at risk.” 

The targeting can also happen at school.

Last August, a former track coach and security officer at Colonial Forge High School was found guilty of three counts of soliciting a minor for prostitution. Delvin Ladon Jackson, 37, of Stafford, was sentenced Feb. 12 to four years in prison, according to The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg.

At the symposium, Gene Sellers voiced his support for increased background checks for all school division staff. Jackson had offered his teenaged grandson $2,000 to have sex acts with men, but the boy refused. 

Sellers has served on the parish anti-human trafficking committee at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Triangle since 2005. 

He told InsideNoVa that before soliciting his grandson, Jackson gave the teenager expensive shirts. Then there was a gift of a pair of track shoes that cost hundreds of dollars, Sellers said. 

“How can a coach offer this?” Sellers said he thought. “He’s a coach and a security guard.” 

Jackson isolated the teen in a hotel room during a trip for the track team. Sellers said his grandson disclosed what happened in the hotel room when he was 17 years old in 2019, because he was afraid Jackson could target his younger brother. 

“It could happen in your community, in your family or to your grandsons,” Sellers said. “It’s not just the girls asking questions and talking about shame.” 

Sellers said his grandson dropped out of track, received mental health support, graduated early and is attending college.

Human traffickers often isolate their victim from their support system and may put the victim around other people who are trafficked to normalize the experience, Smith said.

Smith said traffickers may say things such as “no one else understands you” or “you don’t get along with your parents, come talk to me.”

Traffickers groom the victims, often by being nice at the beginning, Smith said. She also described other red flag indicators of human trafficking, such as an older significant other or sudden changes in behavior. 

“It’s important for kids to know this isn’t their fault,” Smith said. 

MORE SUPPORT

In her position with the school division, Smith ensures the human trafficking prevention lesson is provided to all ninth grade students, provides training to staff and community members about the topic, helps identify students at-risk of or currently being groomed or trafficked and provides follow-up services and supports through school and community interventions. She also manages the cases of students through high school graduation.

In the 2016-17 school year, the division received federal and state grant money to expand a limited education campaign to all 12 high schools and two middle schools. In the same year, the Virginia Department of Education added human trafficking awareness to the family life education standards of learning.

The school board approved funding Smith’s position full-time in the 2018-19 budget. 

“It definitely helps sustain the program, because we don’t have to look for another grant again for my position here,” Smith said. 

Angella Alvernaz, the state trafficking response coordinator with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, also spoke at the symposium.

Alvernaz’s position was created last year after the Virginia State Crime Commission’s 2018 Annual Report on Sex Trafficking in Virginia found that sex trafficking is prevelent, but resources for victims are limited. 

Alvernaz said her ultimate goal is to create a consistent response for the way providers and agencies work human trafficking cases and provide awareness and training. 

She said a positive change is how a trafficker can now be categorized as a caretaker. This expands social services workers’ ability to respond to allegations of human trafficking. 

The state has also created a new prevention of sex trafficking fund that is currently in its collection phase. People who are convicted of trafficking-related offenses pay a fine that is set aside into this fund, Alvernaz said. The fine for a misdemeanor offense is $100 and the fine for a felony offense is $500.

“Once the fund has matured and there’s enough money to use by the localities, there will be a process where state and local agencies can access those funds for prevention and awareness activities,” Alvernaz said. 

Lydia Teutsch is chair of the Greater Prince William County Human Trafficking Task Force and works as the sexual assault services director for the Dumfries-based Action in Community Through Service. She said the school division works with ACTS to provide services to people who have been sexually assaulted or experienced domestic violence.

The taskforce has representatives from different agencies that include juvenile probation officers, FBI, local law enforcement, school personnel and victim service providers, with the goal of improving the reaction to human trafficking allegations, including connecting victims to services, decreasing recidivism, and making sure different jurisdictions are communicating, Teutsch said. 

“We will figure it out for you,” Teutsch said. “If you call me, I’ll make sure you’re handed off to the right person.” 

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