REGION — In 2003, the FBI’s Crimes Against Children Unit identified San Diego as one of 13 cities deemed a high intensity child prostitution area.
“Human trafficking is really the largest human rights violation that is occurring this century,” said Summer Stephan, the chief deputy in charge of sex crimes and human trafficking for San Diego’s district attorney’s office.
The number of human trafficking cases prosecuted in San Diego County has more than tripled in recent years, going from nine cases in 2009 to 46 in 2013.
“We have become, San Diego County, one of those regions that is a hot spot for human trafficking,” Stephan said, speaking before SANDAG’s public safety committee on Feb. 21.
Since the FBI’s report, law enforcement, prosecutors, and service providers throughout the county have collaborated to prevent and combat human trafficking locally.
The heightened focus has ignited educational outreach efforts. In recognition of the high number of juvenile human trafficking victims, school districts are being encouraged to educate their staff and students about sexual exploitation.
Child victims are typically inducted into human trafficking between the ages of 12-14, according to Stephan. Some of the indicators of sexual exploitation, including truancy, academic issues, anger, and sexualized behavior, can be observed in a student in at school.
“The grooming process starts in elementary and middle school,” said Crystal Anthony, the director of North County Lifeline’s Project Life, an advocacy program for girls who have been the victims of sex trafficking.
Anthony has been working with the Oceanside Unified School District (OUSD) to develop a pilot program to train staff as well as inform students and parents about human trafficking.
“(School districts) have way more access to these parents and these students and the ability to bring prevention and make an impact,” she explained.
With the support of OUSD’s school board, Anthony trained all of the district’s counselors, psychologists and administrators on how to recognize the signs of human trafficking last year.
“We need to make sure our students are safe,” said OUSD director of student services Cheri Sanders about the district’s efforts to increase awareness about human trafficking.
The goal is to eventually host forums about human trafficking for students and parents throughout the district, she said.
OUSD is starting by developing educational programs at the high school level and then working towards creating programs for students in earlier grades.
“Being as sensitive of a topic as this is, we’re going to have to work our way down,” Sanders explained. She emphasized that the district wants to gather the support of parents as it establishes new programs.
OUSD hosted its first human trafficking forum in February for students at the district’s continuation high school, Ocean Shores High School.
The approximately 180 students at Ocean Shore High School are some of the most at risk in the district and need extra support, Sanders said.
Autumn Burris, a survivor of sexual exploitation, led the pilot discussion for the students.
She founded the nonprofit Survivors for Solutions to advocate for survivors of sexual exploitation to lead educational and public policy efforts to fight human trafficking.
She explained that human trafficking ties in with other social issues already addressed in schools, including cyber safety and healthy relationships.
“We have to stop pretending (human trafficking) doesn’t happen in our own backyard,” she said.
The discussion at Ocean Shores was based on how to recognize the signs of sexual exploitation and what resources are available for victims.
She believes that the majority of youth will have encountered some form of sexual exploitation by the time they graduate high school, so prevention programs for students are critical.
“The choices here are you are either going to learn about human trafficking from a prevention program or you are going to learn about it from a trafficker,” Burris said.
Anthony is currently working with school districts in Vista and Escondido to develop additional outreach programs.
Though school districts in North County may be among many offering sex trafficking prevention education for students if Senate Bill 1165 is passed. The bill, which was introduced by Senators Holly Mitchell and Marty Block in February, authorizes public school districts to provide sexual abuse and sex trafficking prevention education.
North County Lifeline is also hosting its second annual human trafficking conference at Cesar Chavez Middle School May 3. The conference will highlight how human trafficking is being addressed in the community and features key speakers including San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and the U.S. Attorney for southern California Laura Duffy.