Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado

Deputy Jay Martin of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office speaks about how children can be tricked into prostitution via social media during a presentation on human trafficking held in January at Manitou Springs Elementary School. (Gazette file photo, Christian Murdock)

Schools aren’t taking the issue of children being forced into prostitution — essentially modern-day slavery — as seriously as they should, say members of the Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado, who are working to change that.

Pimps usually target adolescents on social media and trick or force them into having sex for money, threatening to expose them if they tell anyone.

Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument is on the radar of such illicit activity because of its proximity to Interstate 25, Superintendent Karen Brofft said.

“I-25 has become a hub for human trafficking,” she said, adding that a now shuttered hotel in Monument had been a well-known site for human trafficking.

“If we can provide enough information for our staff members to be aware of the warning signs that might be a signal students need help, we can get them people to talk to,” Brofft said.

Colorado Springs-area districts moving the needle in right direction, school officials say

Lisa Brandt, chairwoman of education awareness for the task force, said teachers and students don’t always have the knowledge they need to identify and be safe from human trafficking.

“Without consistent, frequent education, this crime will continue to thrive,” she said.

Human trafficking, defined as when someone is forced, coerced or tricked into working for the profit of someone else, primarily as a prostitute, is a much larger issue than people think, Brandt says.

Since the Colorado Springs Police Department formed a Human Trafficking Unit in 2014, the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office has seen a 50 percent increase in the prosecution of crimes related to human trafficking, spokeswoman Lee Richards said.

“It’s often referred to as a diverse and hidden crime,” she said, “and one that often goes underreported.”

In 2017, the first year the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline began taking calls about child sex trafficking, 307 potential cases were reported, the Colorado Department of Human Services released in January.

Brofft said she didn’t know much about the problem until some students in her school district became involved.

“It has impacted some kids in our district,” she said. “We’ve had students identified as at-risk for human trafficking or showing some of the warning signs that they are susceptible.”

Brofft said she had no idea the issue was so widespread and so prevalent in El Paso County.

“Some of our most vulnerable kids are ones that may not stand out,” she said. “They’re the sort of students that may not be part of a specific group, and those are the kids we need to connect with.”

Brofft decided the topic is so important that all 350 teachers and administrators in her district are being required to take a two-hour training session on Friday, when students are off.

The Human Trafficking Task Force of Southern Colorado presented a training session in January for Manitou Springs School District 14 and Academy School District 20, which was videotaped and is now being used by school districts in all 50 states for training on “digital citizenship,” Brandt said.

The training gives information on cyber predators and cyber bullying, along with an in-depth look at the realm and scope of human trafficking, using real-life cases about local teens.

Speakers include Douglas County Deputy Jay Martin, the lead instructor for the office’s Youth Education and Safety in Schools program; and Sgt. Craig Simpson, who heads the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Vice and Trafficking Unit.

Police focus on juvenile prostitution involving boys, girls and transgender youths; the johns who pay to have sex with the kids; and individuals, gangs and cartel members who pimp the adolescents to turn tricks, Simpson told school leaders at the January presentation.

The average age of children involved in sex trafficking is 12 to 14 years old, he said.

National laws protecting victims are in place, as are many anti-trafficking programs, including six federal departments, such as the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security.

In a 2015 instructional document called Human Trafficking in America’s Schools, the Education Department said many child victims are in the American school system, and it’s imperative that school personnel learn how to identify and report suspected abuse by looking for indications of the crime, warning signs and proper response.

Brandt said it’s unusual for an entire school district to make such training mandatory.

“We applaud Superintendent Karen Brofft’s commitment to make her staff aware of the human trafficking signs and hope other El Paso County school district leaders will follow her leadership,” Brandt said.

The Colorado hotline for child abuse, neglect and sex trafficking is (844) 264-5437.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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