How to Catch Signs of Sex Trafficking Among Students

Signs of Sex Trafficking in U.S. Students

Whether you’re heading back to school this month as a student, teacher, or administrator, you have a unique opportunity in the fight against sex trafficking.

Because likely, there are exploited and trafficked youth in your halls and classrooms.

You may have a certain image in your mind of what sex trafficking looks like in the United States. In your own city. In your neighborhood. Whether you envision dramatic kidnappings and locked doors, or transactions on a dark street corner, you may not realize that sex trafficking is happening quietly and discreetly around you.

The key factor of trafficking in the U.S. is vulnerability. While it is true that any child or youth can become a trafficking victim, traffickers tend to prey on those with certain risk factors. According to a 2013 report from Covenant House, risk factors for sex trafficking include:

  • homelessness;
  • prior childhood abuse;
  • the lack of any caring, supportive adult in a youth’s life; and
  • the lack of education or any means to earn an income.

Additional risk factors may include being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), and having a history of being in the foster care system or justice system.1

You may not witness trafficking around you in the ways you would expect — kids being forced into unmarked vans or money changing hands — but there are signs you can look for in the kids and teens who you spend time with every day.

Signs of Sex Trafficking in Students2

  • unexplained school absences
  • an abrupt change in attire, behavior, or relationships
  • the presence of an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”
  • travel with an older male who is not a guardian
  • the sudden presence of expensive material possessions
  • chronic running away
  • homelessness
  • signs of psychological coercion, such as depression, anxiety, and/or an overly submissive attitude
  • lack of control over his/her schedule, money, and/or proof of identification
  • signs of physical trauma, including bruises, cuts, burns, and/or scars
  • tattoos or other branding marks
  • poor health, as evidenced by sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition, and/or serious dental problems
  • substance abuse or addictions, or selling drugs
  • Coached/rehearsed responses to questions
  • Uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior and/or references to sexual situations or terminology that are beyond age-specific norms

I see the signs. Now what?

Find out what your school or organization’s protocol is so that you know how to respond if you notice signs that a student is trafficked. If your organization doesn’t have protocol, here are ways to take action, depending on your situation:

  • In the case of an immediate emergency, call your local police department or emergency access number.
  • To report suspected human trafficking crimes or to get help from law enforcement, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or submit a tip online at
  • To report sexually exploited or abused minors, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST, or report incidents at

Want to take action right now? One trafficking risk factor is something we can all help prevent. Youth who don’t have a supportive, caring adult in their lives are more at risk to be exploited for sex. Whether you have one child in your life or 30, you can be a supportive and caring adult to a vulnerable child who needs you. The impact may seem small in the moment, but you could be saving a life.

The Exodus Road is expanding rescue work into the U.S. this year to help find and free those who have been exploited and trafficked. Learn more about our expansion to the Americas

1Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2013, p. 78

2National Center for Homeless Education, “Sex Trafficking of Minors: What Schools Need to Know to Recognize and Respond to the Trafficking of Students,” 2014. and Department of Education, “Human Trafficking of Children in the United States: A Fact Sheet for Schools,” 2013.