School bus drivers train to be on the lookout for human trafficking
Invisible, right in front of our eyes. Hidden in plain sight every day means Iowa's school children are vulnerable to the tragic realities of falling victim to human trafficking. This year, in an effort to identify, disrupt, and report human trafficking of Iowa's youth, every school bus driver in every school district in the state will receive specialized training, enabling drivers to act and help save young lives from such a fate. The 9,000 extra pairs of trained eyes on board are on the lookout and well positioned to impact the lives of students.
The second-largest criminal activity in the world (drug trafficking is first) and commonly described as modern-day slavery, human trafficking is the exploitation of human beings through force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of commercial sex or forced labor. That an individual can be sold repeatedly is not lost upon one who traffics human beings.
Considering that of the 40 million victims globally, thousands are school-age children living in the U.S. and Canada, and considering a trafficker will stop short of nothing to make a victim comply and obey, it seems prudent to sit up, take notice, and take significant action. With half of all American school children riding a bus daily, drivers have numerous points of intersection and opportunity for conversations with potential victims, and can be the critical eyes and ears that notice when something isn’t quite right.
Enter those responsible for transporting just shy of 240,000 Iowa children from home to school and back again each day, starting with Max Christensen, head of school transportation services at the Iowa Department of Education. When Christensen learned about the extent and severity of the problem from Iowa Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Enforcement Chief David Lorenzen, wheels were set in motion to include the Busing on the Lookout program in annual training for all school bus drivers.
“The more people you have trained out there, who are looking at things with a trained eye, they are sensitized to it and can get that gut feeling if something is wrong with the child,” Christensen said.
Lorenzen gave a presentation about children and human trafficking to the 165 mostly transportation director attendees at the Iowa annual school transportation summer conference. Participants learned that Des Moines is one of the highest human trafficking areas because two major interstate highways (Interstates 80 and 35) intersect, which makes transporting victims convenient.
“Everybody in that room was just riveted to the presentation, because you don’t think about this problem, especially in relation to school buses,” Christensen said. “To realize what these children are being put into, being put through, it breaks your heart. When I saw how the crowd reacted, I thought, ‘Yes. This needs to be included in the annual bus driver training.’”
Transportation directors throughout the state agreed and fully supported including such training for their drivers.
Christensen then contacted Annie Sovcik with the national organization Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) requesting materials specific to bus drivers. Sovcik, program director for Busing on the Lookout (BOTL), was able to provide materials for the 38 bus driver trainers across the state.
Trainers will also make presentations to bus drivers similar to what Lorenzen made at the summer transportation conference. During their annual training, returning drivers and approximately 1,000 new drivers will view the DVD Make the Call, Save Lives, and will receive wallet cards which include information about red flag indicators, questions to ask students, actionable information law enforcement needs to open an investigation, and national hotline numbers. Drivers also receive information on a Busing on the Lookout School Bus Drivers one pager, participate in a question-and-answer session, and take a required quiz based on what they learned about human trafficking.
Iowa is the first state to require training about human trafficking of its school bus drivers. Truckers Against Trafficking ran an article about the Iowa training in its August newsletter, with the goal of encouraging more states to follow Iowa’s lead.
Annika Mack, a young human trafficking survivor and victim advocate who is featured in the DVD titled Make the Call, Save Lives, said it best:
“Human trafficking happens all around us. We don’t even notice it. If I don’t make a difference now, who will? If we don’t take the responsibilities on ourselves, then who are we expecting to do it? For me, if somebody said they cared about me, it would have been enough.”
Iowa’s school bus drivers are on the front lines, interacting with students multiple times each school day, and are in a unique position to be observant and ask appropriate, constructive, questions of their passengers. They can have an integral role in recognizing and reporting the crime of human trafficking of our youth. Invisible no more.
Below are some of the most common signs that a child is being trafficked:
- Unexpected, frequent absences from school
- Signs of neglect, appears malnourished or unkempt
- Bruises/physical trauma
- Signs of drug addiction
- Changes in attire, material possessions, unexplained gifts, all the latest gadgets (traffickers will often groom their victims by showering them with attention, affection, and purchased items in order to earn trust and affection)
- Tattoos (a form of branding, displaying the name or moniker of a trafficker)
- Fearful demeanor, uncomfortable with a certain individual or individuals
- Major changes in behavior, uncontrollable anger or crying, emotional highs and lows
For more in-depth information, visit:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-3737-888