Preventing Child Trafficking at the School Level - Tertiary Tier: Treatment, Recovery, and Reintegration

In this tier, schools and social service providers help survivors recover from trafficking and resume their education if it was interrupted. Young people affected by trafficking need substantial and ongoing social-emotional and mental health support, and schools can help coordinate and deliver it. This tier is often overlooked by schools because, in many cases, trafficking survivors are quickly referred to alternative education settings or independent study programs. Schools make these referrals for a number of reasons. They may not understand how they can support trafficking survivors. School administrators may fear survivors will recruit other students into trafficking or will exhibit serious behavioral problems. If a student has been out of school for a long time, then they may be so far behind academically that they would be in classes with much younger students. All these issues may make a referral to alternative settings seem ideal.

Sometimes, such settings can be helpful. Alternative educational programs tend to have small teacher-to-student ratios, special teacher and counselor training, and high levels of collaboration with community partners—all supports that survivors may require. Referring trafficking survivors to other settings does not always serve them well, however. Referring a student to a GED program, for instance, risks removing them from the healthy peer and adult interactions that could support their recovery in a more traditional school setting.

It is important to recognize that every case of human trafficking is unique, and recovery does not follow a neat trajectory. In many cases, students affected by trafficking have already been shifted into alternative settings because of behavioral issues—issues likely stemming from trafficking and the circumstances that made them vulnerable to trafficking initially. Their trafficking histories may only be discovered after the move to the alternative setting. But whether students remain in their home schools or are in an alternative school or a GED program, schools can and should play a central role in reintegrating students into the educational environment through such actions as coordinating care and helping them finish their education. Systems addressing trafficking thoroughly, including the reintegration of students, do the following:

Some school personnel, by virtue of their connection to students, should be trained more intensively. Those staff include front desk staff, bus drivers, assistant principals, school counselors, social workers, attendance officers, dropout prevention officers, special education teachers, and school nurses.

  • Establish policies, protocols, and procedures that guide the responses to human trafficking cases among students.
  • Ensure that all protocols, procedures, and services for students who have experienced trafficking are trauma informed and student led. Students’ wishes should always be honored to the greatest extent possible, and they should be supported in making whatever decisions they feel enhances their safety and helps them achieve their short- and long-term goals.
  • Develop memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with community partners that specialize in sex and labor trafficking. If specialists do not exist locally, schools should consider establishing an MOU with a sexual assault service provider or child advocacy or assessment center.
  • Coordinate with trauma-informed specialists in the community to make sure the student is receiving the care they need and follow up on a weekly or monthly basis to check on the student’s progress. Understand that helping students heal may require coordinating with a wide range of professionals in the community involved in the student’s life, including probation officers, pretrial advocates, child welfare case workers, and others.
  • Help coordinate payment for treatment if funds for those purposes are made available by the state, county, or city in which the student lives.
  • Check directly in with students, and their families if appropriate, either in person or by phone regularly. Schedule appointments in advance and let the student and their caregivers dictate the frequency of interaction.
  • Confer regularly with school-based social workers, psychologists, or counselors who can monitor the student and make sure they’re staying on track academically and socially. Even students who are making progress may experience occasional setbacks; in those cases, the school counselor can work with teachers to temporarily adjust the student’s workload and provide additional support as necessary.
  • Ensure any behavioral issues the student exhibits in school are addressed from a trauma-informed perspective.
  • Realize students who have experienced trafficking do not usually recruit other students. If the school has a good reason, based on observable facts, to believe recruitment is a concern, they can take action to mitigate those risks. Actions could include monitoring student social media for concerning behavior (as some schools are already doing to address bullying behavior); identifying a key staff member (e.g., school counselor or social worker) to address the specific concerns related to recruitment; and developing clear policies and procedures that allow for school schedules that reduce the potential interaction of students who could be recruiting and those being targeted for recruitment.

If the budget allows, a full- or part-time dedicated district-level specialist can perform these central coordinating, case management, and monitoring activities to ensure focused, consistent services across schools. Local human trafficking task forces may have already established multidisciplinary teams that can share these tasks or even take the lead. Otherwise, school-based counselors, psychologists, nurses, and other relevant staff can manage much of the work internally. Remember that school-based trafficking response teams should include attendance officers because they are often the first to notice that a student is struggling.