• 81°

School board hears sex trafficking prevention presentation

Albert Lea school board members heard a sex trafficking presentation on Monday by three women with the intention of educating the public.

“I have been a detective for 20 years and I didn’t hear much about sex trafficking or really know much about it up until the spring of 2013, when we had a woman dragged down the highway outside of her car,” said Deb Flatness, an Albert Lea Police Department detective.

Flatness informed the school board that sex trafficking was closer to Albert Lea than they may believe. She said that through a victim of sex trafficking that she met — referred to as “Vanity” — she learned there were four competing sex trafficking circuits of women passing through local strip clubs.

The detective said Vanity taught her what she didn’t know about sex trafficking.

Flatness said Vanity was on a circuit of exotic dancers that were traveling from Milwaukee to Chicago, making stops in Austin, Albert Lea, Duluth and Des Moines, before heading over to the oil fields in North and South Dakota.

Flatness said prior to meeting Vanity, she thought women were involved with stripping because they wanted easy money and men were prepared to pay the money to have sex with these women. She said she had somewhat of a “no harm, no foul” attitude about the sex and stripping industries.

This attitude didn’t last long after meeting Vanity, however.

“I learned through her and through subsequent training that a large majority — 85 percent — are forced into this kind of a lifestyle through one means or another,” Flatness said. “ Once (those involved with sex trafficking) are in there, 100 percent have the idea that there is now way to get out once you’re in it.”

The three women presenting to the school board outlined their beliefs that prevention is crucial.

Flatness said that through studies and interaction with victims of sex trafficking, it takes up to eight interactions with law enforcement before victims will actually seek help to get out of the trade.

“We hadn’t heard about it. (The Albert Lea Police Department) brought in the Office of Justice programs and they pointed out our high potential for sex trafficking in Albert Lea,” Flatness said.

She credited two large truck stops, a bus stop, a large number of hotels and the intersection of major freeways in Albert Lea as an atmosphere conducive to the mobile nature of the sex trafficking industry.

The ALPD has heard reports of friends recruiting friends to the sex trafficking industry in the Albert Lea school district, Flatness said. She also said that sex trafficking often goes hand in hand with drug dealing.

“If a person is dealing drugs, then they also want to be able to provide you with a young boy or a young girl so that they are full service dealers,” Flatness said. “It is a big business, it is a big economy, it is a big money maker and so it is going to be spreading even more.”

Flatness credited pornography, texting or sexting, social media and technology with fueling the sex trafficking industry’s upward trend.

Regular absences in school, couch hopping or homelessness, and drug or alcohol use are a few red flags that Flatness identified for the board.

Flatness said the average age of entry for sex trafficking is 12 to 15 years old and the life expectancy within the industry is about seven years.

“We want to get involved in the school and teach the kids the signs of what to look for and teach the instructors what to look for,” Flatness said.

Laura Sutherland, a regional navigator for Safe Harbor Minnesota, came to the board to promote prevention education to the school district.

Safe Harbor is a sector of the Minnesota Department of Health, which promotes the the idea that youth who engage in prostitution are viewed as victims and survivors, not criminals. The organization provides support for those affected by sex trafficking and abuse, as well as shelter and housing. As a navigator for Safe Harbor, Sutherland is charged with providing prevention education to students in southeast Minnesota as well as implementing the Safe Harbor law.

Sutherland brought literature to the school board, informing the members of a training session that Safe Harbor makes available to interested school districts.

“Since developing this curriculum a couple of years ago, we have taught to literally thousands and thousands of students in Southeastern Minnesota,” Sutherland said.

All of the middle school and high school students in the Austin, Rochester, Houston County and smaller rural school districts have been reached by the Safe Harbor program.

“We have received nothing but a positive response to this curriculum,” Sutherland said.

The Safe Harbor program typically trains staff before they take students through the training so the staff in the school districts know how to connect students with services.

Jennifer Lloyd-Benson is the CEO executive director of Strength and Dignity, a non-profit organization in Albert Lea that works directly with victims of sex trafficking and promotes prevention.

Lloyd-Benson said she is currently working with local victims of sex trafficking under the age of 17.

“Part of the grooming process that (abusers) have, are picking up girls that look vulnerable, or even are leaving messages on their Facebook saying maybe, ‘having a rough day’ or ‘broke up with my boyfriend,’ and then someone will come in and befriend them,” Lloyd-Benson said.

She attributed youth with wanting or needing quantities of relationships. Lloyd-Benson also said that youth are vulnerable because “if they are struggling with something and someone is willing to give them their time to hear them out and to listen to them, they will do that — they will share all kinds of information.”

“This is prevalent and I just need these kids to be safe and to know what they are doing and to protect them,” Lloyd-Benson said. “They are our children, they are our future.”

School board chairman Ken Petersen commented after the presentation that it is personally mind-boggling that sex trafficking is happening at such a young age.

Although no action was taken following the presentation, the school board was receptive to accepting the proposed programming in the school district.

School board director Jill Marin asked Lloyd-Benson specific questions regarding the local programming she helps provide for rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims.

Marin then asked how, as a school district, the school board can help set a policy that is productive in restoring safe atmospheres for students rather than pushing victims of sex trafficking out.

School board vice chairman Dave Klatt and treasurer Mark Ciota asked questions and clarifications based on the structure of the training that Sutherland proposed.

Clerk Neal Skaar asked for clarifications on the presentation, including the scope of the local sex trafficking problem.

The presenters have visited Alden-Conger, Glenville-Emmons and NRHEG school districts, as well as Riverland Community College to spread awareness and educate on the prevention of sex trafficking.

“Youth are at risk,” Sutherland said.

“There is sex trafficking going on in the city of Albert Lea and it does involve young people,” Flatness said. “What scope, is really hard to determine since it is so underreported and we are aware that people are trading sex for housing, trading sex for food, trading sex for drugs — they are selling themselves to the public in order to make money for the person controlling them.

“I have no idea of the scope, we just know that there is high potential here.”

About Evelyn Seffinga

Evelyn Seffinga covers education and arts and culture for the Albert Lea Tribune.

email author More by Evelyn