Photo by Jeylin White
Members of Riverdale High School’s association of marketing students, are hosting a two-day forum to inform the community about the issue of human sex trafficking. The forum includes a panel of distinguished experts from the judicial system, law enforcement, and health organizations.
“When you hear the word ‘prostitute,’ what is the first word that comes to your mind?” Jennifer Swain asked a room full of teenagers at Riverdale High School.
The question by the deputy program manager for the Juvenile Justice Fund led one boisterous teen to yell, “Ho!”
Other pupils were more reserved, and responded: “Someone who sells their body for sex.” Their replies led to an in-depth discussion about a subject that is getting a lot of attention right now, because of a rise in sexual exploitation of young girls and boys –– human trafficking in Georgia.
Swain, of the Juvenile Justice Fund, was at the school for a two-day forum called “Broken People, Broken Dreams,” which aims to inform the community about the issue of human trafficking in society, and in the local community.
“I think that the [students] were honest,” said Swain. “I think, maybe, some of the teachers were shocked and mortified, by the students’ responses.”
The members of DECA, an association of marketing students, at Riverdale High School are hosting the forum which ends today ( Thursday).
Students who spearheaded the project include: Jocelyn Stargell-Zachery, 18, Emmanuella Ibekwe, 17, and Johel Avila, 17. Beverly Holyfield, a DECA teacher, is the group’s advisor. The project was sponsored by Lighthouse Partners, Inc., Riverdale City Councilmember Kenny Ruffin, and several other businesses and officials.
Swain was the expert for Wednesday’s segment of the forum. She represented the Juvenile Justice Fund, a non-profit organization based in Atlanta, that offers services and shelter to youths and families, who have been victimized by sex trafficking.
During Wednesday’s discussion, Swain gave a statistical overview of the human sex trade in Georgia. She said the average age for youths –– or victims –– who enter into prostitution, are sold, or trafficked, is between 12 and 14. Some youngsters, she added, are sold for sex as young as 11years old. According to Swain, human trafficking has become “Atlanta’s dirty little secret.”
She told the students about a young boy who was sold for sex by his parents, in order for them to pay a $200 bill. Jaws dropped around the room, and several students even began to cringe in their seats as Swain used words, such as “trick, pimps, and ho’s” in discussing the reality of prostitution.
She said prostituting minors is the third-largest business in America. “The average a prostitute makes is $1,000 per night,” she said. She added that most “victims” of sexual exploitation are youths, who are either runaways, or in the foster care system. More girls than boys are the primary targets of sex-trafficking rings, she added.
Atlanta Magazine, earlier, named the City of Atlanta as "Sex City," the capital of sexual exploitation in the United States. Atlanta is also known as the No. 1 “hub” of human trafficking and child-sex exploitation in the country, according to Swain. In her opinion, this is largely due to Atlanta’s airport, highways, and busy business convention venues.
Jocelyn Stargell-Zachery, Emmanuella Ibekwe, and Johel Avila –– students who were in charge of putting the program together –– said they were shocked by the details and statistics Swain shared during the forum.
“It was very touching when we saw how [much of a problem] it is in our area,” said Stargell-Zachery. “We were so uneducated about [human trafficking], and thought this only happens in other countries, and to other girls. But it happens right here on Tara Boulevard.”
Avila said he had a family member who was almost a victim of sex trafficking. “My cousin was almost abducted –– but luckily, officers found her safe and sound,” he said.
During the forum, blue ribbons were signed, containing inspirational thoughts from students and teachers. They will be given to a local, non-profit organization called, Living Water for Girls. The organization is a shelter for young girls, 12 to 17, who have been rescued from human trafficking. The shelter –– which operates at an undisclosed, safe house in Georgia –– offers therapy, education, and a place to call home, according to the organization’s web site.
The students said they also plan to sell wrist bands, in an effort to raise funds for the shelter. Swain said if anyone suspects a child is being victimized sexually, or trafficked, he or she should call the metro Atlanta Crime Stoppers hotline at (404) 577-TIPS, or (404) 577-8477.