The Sunshine State has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst states in the nation for sex trafficking, ranked just behind Texas (#2) and California (#1). Now, with the advent of the new academic year, Florida public school officials have decided to take on the problem by raising awareness not only among faculty members and administrators, but also students of all ages.

The new curriculum was approved on September 20th. While the plans for the program are still in their initial stages, officials say that sex trafficking awareness will be part of health classes at all levels, kindergarten through 12th grade. It will be the first program of its kind in the nation.

Estimates indicate the number of people being exploited in the U.S. to be as high as 17,500, 80 percent of whom are women and children. Last year, Florida law enforcement reported a total of 767 cases of human trafficking; nearly 20 percent of those cases involved persons under the age of 18. Most who are forced into the sex trade — primarily runaways or children from troubled homes — are started between the ages or 12 and 14. Sadly, only about 4 out of eveny 1000  victims are identified, according to the organization Do Something.

In 2017, the Florida Department of Education issued a fact sheet for teachers and school staff, noting that school personnel are “uniquely positioned” to recognize the signs that a child may be a victim of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Often, these signs are not easily recognized, but can include unexplained absences, possession of unusually expensive items, fearful or paranoid behavior, or new tattoos.

Beyond its public schools, the state of Florida has been increasing its efforts in the battle against human trafficking, with more prosecutions and  services for survivors. Raising awareness is an important component, with a growing number of ordinary citizens submitting tips to law enforcement. For survivors of sex trafficking, there are organizations such as Rethreaded, which provides opportunities for these women to start new lives. The Jacksonville non-profit offers “upcycled” items (new, high-end fashion accessories created from old and worn materials); revenues from sales go to help sex trafficking survivors to find employment and get their lives back on track.

The Florida Department of Education has given the state’s school districts until December 1st to submit plans on how they will implement the new human trafficking awareness program. In the meantime, they are telling students, faculty and staff: “If you see something, say something.” Citizens can also report suspicious activity to the Florida Department of Children and Families online or by calling or texting 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873).

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.