- Julius Whigham II Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The president of the Human Trafficking Coalition of the Palm Beaches had a sobering message for Park Vista High School students: Teens like them are among the most likely to fall victim to the crime her organization is fighting.
“There are students in this country that are being trafficked on their lunch hour, or that go to school during the day and they’re being trafficked at night,” Tanya Meade told more than 20 students who gathered recently for a Human Trafficking Awareness Club meeting.
It wasn’t the first visit the coalition had paid to schools during the past year. Students at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Riviera Beach, Atlantic High in Delray Beach and Palm Beach Maritime Academy in Lantana have also learned about the threat of human trafficking, which some people have called modern-day slavery.
Some Florida legislators want all students in the state to hear the message. A bill before the Florida Legislature would require students in all public middle and high schools to be taught about the dangers of human trafficking.
“Human trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability,” Meade said. “If we don’t educate our kids, that lack of knowledge is a vulnerability in itself.”
Park Vista’s club, which meets once a month, has about 40 members, says Hannah Goodman, 17, who founded the club at the suburban Boynton Beach school.
“We’re the third-largest county in the third-largest state for human trafficking and we have a huge school,” Goodman said. “We have over 3,000 kids. There’s bound to be someone who is at risk.”
Florida law defines human trafficking as the use of fraud, force or coercion to exploit another person for sex, labor or domestic servitude.
Last January, the county formed a task force, led by State Attorney Dave Aronberg, that has led a crackdown on human trafficking. At least 12 men were arrested in 2017, and a jury has found one guilty.
A state report released in the summer showed that more children in Florida fell victim to commercial sexual exploitation in 2016 than in the previous year. The state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability says that there were 17 verified cases in Palm Beach County in 2016, six in St. Lucie County and three in Martin County.
School-age children have figured in some Palm Beach County human-trafficking arrests this year. A Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office investigation led to the arrest in May of Lantana resident Joel Bautista Trinidad, who was accused of trying solicit a middle-school-age girl through social media and encouraged her to recruit her friends into prostitution. Trinidad is awaiting trial after rejecting a plea agreement in November that would have sent him to prison for 20 years.
Also, Marco Orrego of suburban Boynton Beach pleaded guilty to federal sex trafficking charges after authorities alleged he forced a teenage girl into prostitution at a Boynton Beach motel.
Advocates say mandatory school programs would raise students’ awareness on trafficking. Senate Bill 96 would require public schools to include instruction on the dangers and signs of human trafficking in health education classes.
Similar bills in the House and Senate failed in May, with the Senate measure, introduced by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, clearing two committees and making it to the Appropriations Committee. But advocates say educators have become more open to introducing the topic to their campuses.
“As awareness grows and the more we talk about it, I think it’s really more and more getting on people’s radar,” said Meade, the trafficking coalition president.
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One of the first county students to start an anti-trafficking effort agrees.
Valentina Ferreira was involved in a similar effort during her time as a student at Wellington High School. Ferreira, who graduated in 2013, founded Love Moves, which raised $10,000 to help start Palm Beach County’s first safe house for girls who were victims of human trafficking.
Ferreira, 23, recalled some in the community wondering why someone so young would address an issue as serious as human trafficking.
“I don’t think people are used to someone seeking justice at a young age,” she said. “They were like, ‘That’s a matter for adults.’ ”
But Ferreira said it’s important for teens and young children to hear the truth about the threat of human traffickers.
“If I’m being honest, the biggest problem is not treating a younger (audience) like they can understand,” she said.