I was sitting in my Friday morning college class when my project partner asked me a question about a topic that I assumed most Americans had been educated about by now. My project partner asked me, “How does human trafficking happen, and does it even happen in America?” I was stunned. This was someone who had a heart and passion for youth at risk, but had never learned about the large number of young people that are being used for sexual exploitation for someone else’s financial gain.

Polaris Project estimates that 100,000 children are “in the sex trade in the United States each year.”

“Does trafficking even happen in America?” my project partner asked. Not only does it happen in America but just this past June, our school’s security cameras had recorded footage of the exchange of girls in “costumes” from one car to another at 3 a.m. between two of our buildings. This happened three times within the span of about two weeks. Shortly after, the police made a trafficking bust in a building about one block away from our school.

If I had to pick the number one reason why I felt compelled to write about trafficking today, it would have to be this:

Trafficking does not exist around us, trafficking exists with us.

I received a mind boggling understanding of this statement last summer when I learned the story of former trafficking victim Theresa Flores, who was trafficked by a boy from her high school in Michigan when she was 15 years old.

For six months, a very attractive boy from Theresa’s school began to pursue her. After six months of persistence and flattery, one day he offered to give her a ride home and she accepted. After they left school, he took her to his home and coerced her to go inside, where she was drugged and raped. The young man’s cousin took pictures of what went on that day in the home. They used the pictures as blackmail and said they would show the pictures to her parents and local church priest if she didn’t earn them back

Naïve to the situation she had just been forced into, Theresa thought that earning the pictures back would mean doing chores for the boys. She was free to return home to her family during the day but was told to meet them outside her home at night.

The young men raped her again, and threatened that if she didn’t do what they told her to do, or if she told anyone, they would kill her family.

At night, the two men would drive to Theresa’s home and pick her up. They took her to many different wealthy homes and motels throughout the city and sold her for sex to an average of two to ten men a night. Around 3 a.m. they would take Theresa back home. She slept for a few hours and then woke up to go to school the following morning. Her grades began to drop, but neither her parents nor her teachers had any idea what was going on. After two years of being trafficked, Theresa was rescued when a suspecting stranger made a phone call to police.

Sadly, many girls that attend high schools and colleges around the U.S. are being trafficked in similar ways.

Here are some signs of abuse in students:

  • Grades begin to drop
  • Consistently exhausted in class
  • Begins to use sexually explicit language
  • Signs of bodily injury
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor health
  • Has very few possessions
  • Has close relationships with older adults that lack appropriate boundaries.

Fortunately, everyone can do something to make a difference and help fight human trafficking. Increased knowledge on the topic of sex trafficking and forced labor has helped raise awareness. This knowledge enables us to look for and report signs of abuse. In addition, teachers and those involved with the education system have the opportunity to educate and protect their students.

Watch Theresa’s story here.