Recognizing the Signs of Human Trafficking in Schools

A Guide for Texas Educators August 2014

In Irving, Texas, a teenager was charged with human trafficking and prostitution after police discovered that he had drugged a fellow classmate, and held her for three days while he sold her to several men for money and drugs in exchange for sex7. In another case, a teenage student in League City, Texas, was charged with prostitution after local authorities discovered that the 17-year-old male suspect was driving female students (ages 14 to 17) to a man's house for illegal sexual activity. In the process of the investigation, authorities also found nine other girls had been lured into the same prostitution ring6. Under Texas and Federal Law, "human trafficking" is the buying and selling of people for forced labor and/or sexual exploitation5. A common misconception is that human trafficking is a crime that is found in city streets and dark motel rooms5. However, these real-life scenarios are only two examples of a large portion of human trafficking cases that have taken place on school campuses and/or involving school-aged children. Even more disturbing is that student-victims, who are being trafficked for forced labor or illegal sexual acts, will continue to attend school regularly, which is why it is important for educators to recognize and report any suspected abuse.

A common misconception is that human trafficking is a crime that is found in city streets and dark motel rooms

Due to the nature of human trafficking being difficult to detect, the Texas Human Trafficking Task Force has provided pertinent information on how educators, school administrators, and school-based law enforcement (SBLE) officers can detect trafficking on school campuses5. In an effort to increase awareness, this article intends to examine the increase use of technology in schools and the role it can play in human trafficking, potential signs of human trafficking, proactive approaches for school administrators, and tips for reporting and responding to abuse.

The Increase Use of Social Media in Schools

Schools provide the perfect opportunity for traffickers because they are populated with vulnerable victims (i.e., students)5. Especially with the increase in digital technology (e.g. cell phones, Internet, and tablets) on school campuses, traffickers are finding that it is much easier to facilitate their crimes through a simple text message. For example, a study conducted by the Pew Research Internet Project reported that 75% of 12-17 year olds possess cell phones1. Approximately 93% of 12-17 years olds go online, and 63% of them do so every day2. Fifty-four percent of teens have also received unwanted texts or spam and 15% have received sexually suggestive text messages, including nude1. The availability of mobile technology that children and teenagers have access to makes them especially vulnerable to a trafficking operation, even on a school campus. In an effort to prevent human trafficking through the use of digital technology, school personnel should implement policies that prohibit children and teenagers from using their cell phones on school grounds, with the exception of emergencies.

Recognizing the Signs of Trafficking

According to the Texas Human Trafficking Task Force, traffickers can play the quintessential role of a parent, student, or friend5. Trafficking victims range in ages from three to eighteen years old and have been found to be predominantly females for sexual exploitation. Males are also trafficked for sexual exploitation; however, evidence shows that they are more likely to be used for forced labor5. Both traffickers and trafficking victims can be found in schools, playgrounds, and other places where children and teenagers congregate as well as in larger places such as, inner-cities, suburbs, and rural areas5. The Texas Human Trafficking Task Force notes that educators, school administrators, and SBLE are in the best position to monitor student's behaviors because they spend a large amount of time at school5. For instance, the Texas Commissioner of Education highlighted the important role the public education system played in reporting abuse5. They noted that 35,100 investigations of suspected child abuse and neglect completed by DFPS in 2012 were a result of reports from school personnel3. In Fiscal Year 2013, school personnel were also the reporting source for 33,146 completed investigations of possible abuse or neglect5. These data suggest that observations made by school personnel can produce opportunities to make life-altering decisions on behalf of the students.

Educators, school administrators, and SBLE are in the best position to monitor student's behaviors because they spend a large amount of time at school

Table 1 provides several potential indicators of human trafficking that school staff should keep in mind. It is important to note, that no one indicator or combination of indicators necessarily signals trafficking is occurring. Rather, these indicators may serve as warning signs, especially if the indicator represents a significant change in the child5.

Table 1. Potential Indicators of Human Trafficking5

Reporting Suspected Human Trafficking

The Texas Human Trafficking Task Force notes that school personnel should immediately report any incidents of suspected trafficking to law enforcement and/or DFPS, as required by the law5. By immediately reporting the situation, law enforcement and DFPS can initiate an investigation to determine whether any abuse has occurred. In no way, should school personnel attempt to address the situation with the student or their family. In the event that a student approaches a school staff member (e.g., teacher, counselor, administrator, or SBLE officer) about abuse or neglect, including trafficking, the member may be subject to an interview by law enforcement. Regardless of initial apprehensions to report, the staff member should keep in mind that proactive approaches to suspected incidents will help provide for the safety of Texas children5.

School Personnel Survey

Furthermore, the Task Force has provided guidelines for reporting incidents of trafficking as well as responding to an "outcry." The guidelines include: (1) making certain that both the staff member and the victim are safe, (2) under no circumstances should the staff member confront the suspected trafficker (3) the staff member should assure the child that he or she did the right thing by reaching out, and (4) report the situation as required by law5.

Texas Law Requires

Texas Law requires law enforcement officers to immediately inform DFPS of alleged incidents of abuse or neglect that involve the person responsible for their child's care, custody, or welfare4. The Texas Human Trafficking Task Force provides two options for reporting suspected incidents of human trafficking5. First, they make available the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400, which operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Texas Abuse Hotline also operates a secure website, but assert that this option is considered only for non-urgent situations. Other available assistance includes non-profit organizations, such as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline, which connects callers with anti-trafficking services5. By reporting abuse, educators, and school administrators can help save a student's life by providing victims with services, such as medical care, mental health services, and legal services that they likely had to access to.

Proactive Approaches for School Districts

In addition to being reactive to sign of trafficking, many school districts in the U.S. have taken proactive approaches to addressing human trafficking of school-aged youth. These approaches include displaying awareness posters on campus, training personnel, and developing response plans for when trafficking is suspected and/or reported5. Taking a proactive approach within school districts can help students and school staff by providing them with the best possible way of identifying and reporting abuse. Additionally, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) Texas Regional Office provides free presentations and training to educators, school administrators, and counselors, to help them identify the warning signs (noted in Table 1) among school children. NCMEC also provides discussions with youth about human trafficking5.

Taking a proactive approach within school districts can help students and school staff by providing them with the best possible way of identifying and reporting abuse

It is essential for the future of Texas that children and teenagers have the opportunity to thrive in schools and to feel safe in the classroom. For this to occur, it is vital that the efforts made by teachers, administrators, counselors, and SBLE officers continue to increase. For more information about human trafficking in Texas Schools, visit Human Trafficking: A Guide for Texas Education Professionals.


1Lenhart, A., Ling, R., Campbell, S., & Purcell, K. (2010). Teens and mobile phones. Washington, DC: Pew Research Internet Project. Retrieved from

2Lenhart, A., Purcell, K., Smith, A., & Zickuhr, K. (2010). Social Media & Mobile internet use among teens and young adults. Washington, DC: Pew Research Internet Project. Retrieved from

3Texas Education Agency. (2013). Child abuse and neglect reporting requirements. Austin, TX: Retrieved from

4Texas Family Code §261.105

5Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force. (2014). Introduction to human trafficking: A Guide for Texas education professionals. Austin, TX: Retrieved from

6Rice, H. (2013, November 7). Teen Accused of helping man lure girls for sex. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from

7Whitley, J. (2013). Irving Student arrested on Human Trafficking Charge. ABC News. Retrieved from