Mijares: Orange County well-positioned to combat human trafficking and exploitation

In a perfect world, all students would walk into our classrooms free of distress and distraction, ready to absorb the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in college and career, and beyond.

But today’s educators must be responsive to extraordinary circumstances that can inhibit teaching and learning, such as poverty, violence and homelessness. Despite these major issues, we must also be aware of the malignancy caused by human trafficking here in Orange County. According to a 2016 report, women and children account for 90 percent of the victims.

An image of Orange County Superintendent Al MijaresThat brings us to some of the bigger myths about human trafficking: We tend to think it happens mainly to adults, and in communities other than our own.

The real picture is vastly more complicated and difficult to combat, because human traffickers use deception, manipulation, intimidation and threats to prey on and exploit those who are vulnerable. Victims are often coerced into prostitution, illicit drugs and other forms of trafficking. According to the organization Polaris, this has grown to become a multi-billion dollar criminal industry, one that quietly strips nearly 25 million people of their freedom.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge this is a subject that is difficult to discuss, but it is a scourge in our city, county, state and country, and it affects the lives of children and young adults. Believe it or not, the victimization begins early in life and it is imperative that we strengthen our schools and public institutions to recognize how to combat this problem.

To that end, the Orange County Department of Education is teaming up with our partners at Vanguard University to participate in the Ensure Justice 2019 conference that kicks off on Friday, March 1. This two-day event is designed to equip teachers, parents, law enforcement personnel, students and community members with strategies to identify and protect those who are most at risk.

Prevention starts with shedding light on perpetrators and recognizing tell-tale signs in our communities. This may include evidence of malnourishment or abuse, withdrawal, drug abuse, and chronic absenteeism.

In Orange County, I believe we are well-positioned to prevent trafficking and the exploitation of children. In addition to working closely with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and other local law enforcement agencies, our educators are committed to addressing the social-emotional needs of all students through initiatives such as the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) framework. In fact, OCDE is leading the statewide implementation of MTSS, which provides core supports for all students, additional assistance for some and targeted interventions for those with the greatest needs.

It’s not hard to make the case that our county’s ability to thwart human trafficking aligns with OCDE’s vision that “Orange County students will lead the nation in college and career readiness and success.” It’s our job to educate the whole child, which means getting to know each student, understanding their unique circumstances and doing our best to remove barriers to learning, no matter how large.

To report a potential human trafficking case, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or send a text message to 233733.