How one teacher equips students to stop trafficking before it starts

Ohio ranks fifth in the United States for human trafficking. But Celia Williamson considers that a victory of sorts, because it means that residents have a high degree of awareness of the problem.

“It’s not really about snatching and grabbing people off the street,” says Dr. Williamson, at the University of Toledo. “That is doing a disservice to the reality of trafficking and it has everybody looking in the wrong places.”

“It’s about vulnerability … That’s the common denominator about trafficked youth,” says Mona Al-Hayani, a history teacher who last year won Ohio’s Teacher of the Year award for stepping up to design a curriculum and train more than 20,000 students and educators about human trafficking. 

At the Ohio state capitol last year, Ms. Al-Hayani’s students performed a skit demonstrating how predators lure vulnerable young people. In Toledo almost 20,000 of the district’s 23,000 students are economically disadvantaged, and its public schools have the most homeless students in the state.

“If we don’t arm students with knowledge and power – that when they take informed action change can happen – we’re doomed as a society,” Ms. Al-Hayani says. Teachers act as both “warriors and advocates” in their classrooms every day, she adds. “People don’t really realize that.”

TOLEDO, Ohio

When teacher Mona Al-Hayani looks at high school students, she sees possibilities. But after years of social justice work, she’s also keenly aware of unseen dangers to young people.

So when the state of Ohio mandated five years ago that public school staff receive training on human trafficking – without providing any money or much direction – “Ms. Al,” as she’s called, stepped up.

She developed a curriculum for the Toledo district, trained more than 20,000 students and educators in how to identify risk factors, connected the schools to local advocacy groups, and has started offering training for nearby communities. The effort earned her Ohio’s Teacher of the Year award in 2019, and the admiration of advocates for impoverished young people who are most at risk.

As her school prepares to start the year remotely, Ms. Al-Hayani has been helping develop an app called Youth Pages, which offers resources to mitigate factors that lead to human trafficking.  

Sandy Sieben, co-chair of the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition (LCHTC), has a simple answer for those who ask how Toledo has managed to come this far: “We say, ‘Mona.’ It’s because of Mona’s respect in the community and her ability. Mona’s really talented and skilled in talking to all levels.”

Traffickers prey on victims’ vulnerabilities, and high school students can be easy targets. A 2019 report by the University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice said most victims trafficked that year were between 12 and 30 years old, with about 86% identified as minors. Most cases involve teenagers in abusive relationships who are tricked into sex trafficking by their partner.

Anti-trafficking advocates are also fighting a newer phenomenon, the conspiracy theories perpetuated on social media that attempt to link high-profile people to trafficking.

“They’re giving you the caricature of a sensationalized sliver of what might be happening,” says Celia Williamson, director of the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at the University of Toledo and founder of the LCHTC.

False stories often focus on a specific prominent person or organization that is supposedly trafficking. But that misinformation discounts the factors that contribute to the problem, she adds. Instead, it panics the public and leads to “institutionalized privilege” – with individuals investing money to help communities that are already protected. “What we’re trying to address is the more common manipulation that occurs,” says. Dr. Williamson.

“It’s not really about snatching and grabbing people off the street. That is doing a disservice to the reality of trafficking and it has everybody looking in the wrong places.”

Vulnerabilities preyed on 

Toledo and Lucas County have a large proportion of vulnerable young people. Ohio Department of Education data indicates that Toledo public schools had more homeless students, about 2,700, than any other district in the state during the 2015-2016 year. Almost 20,000 of the district’s 23,000 students are economically disadvantaged. Those challenges could worsen in a recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic.