School Policies and Protocols to Combat Trafficking

Schools have several responsibilities regarding child trafficking. To be effective, they should (a) increase staff awareness and educate staff on the nature of trafficking and on which youth are most vulnerable to it, (b) increase parent and student awareness of the risks and realities of trafficking, and (c) develop district or schoolwide policies and protocols for identifying and supporting trafficking victims.

Basic training on trafficking risk factors and indicators should be provided to school personnel, particularly those who work with students in higher-risk groups, or staff who, by virtue of their positions, are most likely to notice red flags. These school staff include school counselors, bus drivers, special education teachers, attendance officers, and school nurses. It is imperative that school personnel understand trauma-informed practices and how to apply them in situations where students who are victims of trafficking may be struggling with fear, shame, and embarrassment. Suspending judgment and remaining open-minded is critical to creating a trusting relationship in which vulnerable students feel safe to confide and seek support. In this context, keep in mind that counselors or other designated trained specialists may need to meet with a student several times before the student feels comfortable sharing information.

In most cases, classroom teachers or other teaching staff who are concerned about a student should not question the student directly. Instead, they should take their suspicions to the designated counselor or social worker who will investigate the issue per school protocol.

Policies | Effective school policies should require that a trained counselor or licensed clinical social worker engage with the student to gather more information; staff may use a formal assessment tool if the school opts to use one. Police and local child welfare officials should be notified immediately when indicated, per school protocol. (Note that in some states, child welfare officials cannot help unless the perpetrator is a family member.) Once a child victim is identified, it is imperative that all responding providers coordinate intervention and support for the victim and assess whether other students on campus have been impacted.

Human trafficking policies should relate to each of the three prevention tiers in Figure 3. Policies might address the following:

  • Establishing social-emotional learning and positive school climate practices
  • Engaging in a group discussion process with parents and school staff to develop a consensus that child trafficking is a serious problem that requires a systemwide response
  • Offering trainings that address implicit bias and challenge common myths, both within and outside the school community, about how child trafficking looks and who can be involved in it
  • Training for all staff on risks and indicators, and key staff more intensively
  • Incorporating age-appropriate lessons or messages about human trafficking
  • Training parents and youth on the forms that child trafficking takes and how to avoid risk
  • Ensuring campus security
  • Partnering with community law enforcement and social service providers that are expert in child trafficking, where appropriate
  • Developing and training staff on protocols for reporting suspected child trafficking
  • Creating separate policies and protocols for students who have reached the age of majority (therefore considered an adult), according to state law
  • Establishing safety plans and ongoing education plans with student trafficking survivors
  • Establishing procedures to obtain assurance that external services contracts (e.g., cleaning, building security, food service) are not exploiting their staff in ways that would constitute labor trafficking

Protocols | To be ready to assist children affected by trafficking, school districts should consider developing a protocol similar to that used for reporting child abuse or sexual assault. Protocols may be simple frameworks or more elaborate decision trees that walk school staff through many possible contingencies. Regardless of its complexity, any protocol’s central purpose should be to guide school staff in responding to both suspected and confirmed cases of trafficking and should take into account individual states’ mandating reporting requirements. A sample protocol appears in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Sample Protocol for Responding to Suspected Child Trafficking in Schools

An arrow showing a continuum line with six sections: three sections for Suspicion of Trafficking and three sections for Confirmed Trafficking.
Based on your observations of or interactions with the student over time, you believe indicators of sex or labor trafficking are present. Discuss your suspicions with the staff person designated to handle human trafficking cases, ideally a specially trained school counselor or licensed social worker. The counselor will engage with the student and conduct a safety and trafficking assessment. a Depending on the information gathered and state law, the counselor may contact child protection services and/or law enforcement. The designated counselor, working with the vice principal, school resource officer, or other specially trained staff, investigates and responds to potential campus impacts, such as involvement of other students as victims or perpetrators. The designated counselor offers the student (and family members, if indicated) a supported referral to local service providers specializing in trafficking. If specialists are not available locally, referrals should be to domestic violence, sexual assault, or child assessment agencies. The designated counselor engages in educational planning with the survivor and provides ongoing trauma-informed support if the student wishes to return to school.

a See Tools for Educators, developed by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, for examples of safety and trafficking assessment questions.

For another type of protocol specific to sex trafficking, see this example, from San Diego.