Human Trafficking in America’s Schools

Human Trafficking in America’s Schools: What Schools Can Do To Prevent, Respond, and Help Students To Recover from Human Trafficking, Second Edition


The terms “victim” and “survivor” can be problematic for those affected by trafficking, and by using them in this resource, we do not mean to label or define anyone’s experience. Instead, we use them for clarity and to be consistent with language that is currently standard throughout the literature on this issue. In practice, educators are encouraged to be mindful of the power of these terms and to determine, in dialogue with students impacted by trafficking, how they prefer to be referenced.

According to federal law, human trafficking is the exploitation of a person through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of forced labor, commercial sex, or both. Victims of human trafficking include adults and children, both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals.

Of 22,326 trafficking victims and survivors identified through contacts with the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2019, at least 5,359 were under age 18.1 Many underage victims of human trafficking are students in the American school system. No community, school, socioeconomic group, or student demographic is immune. Cases of child trafficking are found in every area of the country—in rural, suburban, and urban settings alike.

Few crimes are more abhorrent than human trafficking, and few crimes are more challenging for communities to recognize and address. For many people, the reality of trafficking in their community is difficult to comprehend, let alone confront. Yet communities, including schools, are beginning to take proactive action against human trafficking. It is fitting that schools take on this challenge; of all social institutions, schools are perhaps the best positioned to identify and report suspected trafficking and connect affected students to critical services.

Schools can and should be safe places for students, and even more so for students whose lives are otherwise characterized by instability and lack of safety and security. Everyone who is part of the school community—administrators, school counselors, nurses, other mental health professionals, teachers, bus drivers, maintenance personnel, food service staff, resource officers, and other school community members—has the potential to be an advocate for children who have been exploited. First, however, school community members must learn the factors that make students vulnerable to trafficking and how to identify the warning signs.

Although they play a crucial role, school personnel cannot and should not address these complex issues alone. Effectively responding to human trafficking demands increased awareness and clearly defined policies, protocols, and procedures supported by collaboration with child protective services, social services, community-based service providers, and law enforcement (if appropriate).

This guide is intended to provide:

  • awareness of the current prevalence of child trafficking and the forms it takes;
  • information on risk factors and indicators of child trafficking;
  • details about three prevention tiers and the implications for schools’ role in addressing child trafficking;
  • information on how professional development of school staff and prevention education for students and families can reduce the likelihood of trafficking; and
  • details on how policies, protocols, and partnerships with other community sectors can help prevent trafficking.

Use the blue box on the right hand side of the screen to navigate through the guide online, or simply download the guide.

If you have any questions about this guide, contact Mr. Earl Myers, Jr at 202.401.2000 or

  1. Polaris Project. (2020). 2019 data report: The US National Human Trafficking Hotline. Polaris Project.

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