by Sarah Banick
Many people think commercial sexual exploitation of children -- a multibillion- dollar industry, victimizing over a million children globally each year -- happens only in developing nations.
Associate professor Ann Cale Kruger had that impression until she learned that the FBI saw Atlanta as a top U.S. location for the crime.
“Children were being trafficked right in the shadows of Georgia State University buildings,” Kruger said. “Many were students in Atlanta Public Schools where the College of Education has student placements, research projects and colleagues.”
According to Kruger, the typical victim in Atlanta is an African-American girl between 12 and 13. Many are runaways or “throwaways” abandoned by parents. Many have been abused and are vulnerable to older males who tell them they are special.
She turned to professor Joel Meyers, executive director of the college’s Center for Research on School Safety, School Climate and Classroom Management. They reached out to colleagues, including associate dean Walt Thompson, executive director of the college’s After-School All-Stars Atlanta program and formed Project P.R.E.V.E.N.T. (Promoting Respect, Enhancing Value, Establishing New Trust) with guidance from former Mayor Shirley Franklin’s office.
The After-School All-Stars program of access to Atlanta Public School middle schools in neighborhoods prone to trafficking. The team spoke with at-risk girls and created a prevention curriculum called “Girl Talk”, which responds to their needs and supports healthy, self-valuing development.
Too often, African-American girls are stereotyped and treated as sex objects. Working with groups of eight girls for two months, graduate students used cultural cues -- music, movies, and television -- to start discussions on trust and build identity as girls and women, helping them envision a future beyond that suggested by popular culture.
A unique contribution of their project is its focus on prevention, serving children who have not yet been victims of commercial sexual exploitation. However, the middle school girls they work with show an alarming knowledge of the sex industry and the "boyfriend-to-pimp transition."
"We try to build personal strengths. We don't explicitly address commercial sexual exploitation of children or the sex industry in our curriculum, but students spontaneously do, as when they discussed stripping in a session on career choices," Kruger said. "Thus the girls' own experiences put them within reach of this exploitative network."
Kruger and Meyers hope to draw the girls away from these risks by helping them to build personal strengths and teaching them to evaluate the safety of their environment.
Finding funding for P.R.E.V.E.N.T. is a challenge due to the sensitive nature of the topic, and preventive interventions that work are extensive and expansive.
"In the long run, we hope to facilitate a whole school/whole community approach to prevention," Kruger said.
"Intervention with early adolescent girls is key to assuring that the next generation has a better chance of developing in a healthy environment," Meyers said. "Given what we learned about the risks, we had no choice but to do something."
This story was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of the College of Education's Milestones magazine.