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On Monday, Dec. 19, local organization NTZ, Inc. (“No Trafficking Zone”) announced that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 7566 (the “Stop Human Trafficking in School Zones Act”), a bill authored by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D) and Congressman Michael McCaul (R) designed to protect children from predators and traffickers in schools throughout America by making such actions a federal crime.

The group is now calling on and appealing to the U.S. Senate to pass the Senate’s version of the bill (SB 5226) this week. 

The Defender spoke with NTZ founder Jacquelyn Aluotto and child sex trafficking survivor Courtney Litvak to discuss the seriousness of this legislation. But first, here are some sobering facts about child sex trafficking:

  • Over 55% of trafficking survivors report that their first introductions to being sold for sex happened while at school or at school-related activities. This includes being groomed, solicited, recruited, and contacted.
  • Evidence-based data and cases prove that in cities and states across the nation, schools are hot spots for domestic child sex trafficking.
  • Predators are using other kids and technology to lure, groom and solicit our children. This happens during school hours and at school activities every day.

DEFENDER: Ms. Aluotto, would you mind giving a brief overview as to how you came about getting involved in this movement?

ALUOTTO: It was on accident. 20-some years ago I was producing a documentary called “Not In My Backyard.” It was about battered women and their children seeking refuge in a country that really wasn’t recognizing that it was happening here. And what happened was, I ended up spending seven years filming, going across America in different cities and states, finding that there were children in the foster care system and runaways that were being labeled as child prostitutes and were being bought and sold. And (society) did not even realize that they were victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, and not even understanding that children can’t be prostitutes. So, that led me on a journey, and 20 years later I’m still continuing in the fight against human trafficking.

DEFENDER: And it’s my understanding that Houston is a national hotspot for this horrific crime, right?

ALUOTTO: Yes. Houston is one of the largest hubs for sex trafficking.

DEFENDER: Ms. Litvak, how did you get involved with this movement?

LITVAK: Well, unfortunately, my story was from firsthand experience. I am from Houston, Texas, and I grew up in a suburb of Houston—Katy. And that is where I was first approached on my school campus by people who were working for nefarious individuals that were former graduates or fellow peers, current athletes, and people who were my classmates, who introduced me into the world of sex trafficking.

DEFENDER: That’s kind of mind-blowing because no one is thinking that students, high school students are actually being used to groom and traffic other minors into this whole sex trafficking thing.

LITVAK: Absolutely. But what’s even sadder is actually now they are targeting younger and younger youth and children in junior high. And the youngest child, unfortunately, who was falling victim and being groomed by a recruiter for a human trafficker was a fifth grader. So, this is not just impacting high school students like myself. And this did not just happen to me first. This had been going on for decades in the school system. But even in my hometown, this had been happening on school campuses long before it happened to me. And it has continued to grow into a larger and worse problem by the day because schools are so in fear of taking accountability because they care about liability. But when people sign up and say that they are going to protect children at all costs and they take an oath for their job or elected position, or a superintendent, their first priority should be protecting kids at all costs, no matter what that could mean. And for them, we just shared with them that there were so many gaps. Many students had been following through for a very long time as human trafficking intersects with many other issues plaguing our schools today. But human trafficking was the number one issue that has been arising in schools over the years and has only grown into a bigger beast. And that is why we must combat it now because I know firsthand how big of an issue it is.

DEFENDER: So, when you were approached when folk were trying to recruit you, do you mind sharing how you responded? What happened after that?

LITVAK: Sure. I really believe in sharing teachable moments to be able to shine a light on how this happens because it’s so much more simple than people believe. And it’s a lot more conspicuous. It’s very low-key. And that’s another thing; people don’t even resonate, especially people at that level and that age, with the term “trafficker,” “human trafficking.” We know people as “pimps” or we know people as fellow peers who we trust but maybe get dragged up into the wrong crowd of people. And so, it was fellow upper upperclassmen who had approached me once I had actually fallen victim to another crime at my school that they unfortunately covered up and was directly the cause of me being introduced to my first pimp as a minor in school as a junior. It was through social media; (that’s) how they were able to contact me even when I wasn’t in school.

That was how they kept a line of constant communication open to have constant access to me to invest that time and build that trust and that relationship, and also define my vulnerabilities to be able to then turn them against me and blackmail me, posing as people who wanted to come in to befriend me and help me when I became extremely susceptible to being targeted at my school because I was already facing other abuses and things that the school was covering up. And I continued to just fall deeper and deeper into this hole, which eventually led me to be trafficked across the country during my senior year of high school.

ALUOTTO: I wanted to just also reaffirm what Courtney was saying about that. This has been happening for years. There is data-based evidence, studies that have been taken in all different states. In California, 20 San Diego County high schools that participated in a study all confirmed that recruitment was happening with their students. Of those schools, 18 of those schools documented cases of sex trafficking. One hundred and forty staff members from 20 of those high schools identified 80 reported victims along with 54 suspected victims. And it gets worse. They also identified 17 recruiters that were targeting their school campuses from that study. They also found that in 2015, between 8,000 to 11,000 victims, mostly underage girls, were trafficked in San Diego each year. And most of those girls came from schools. That just shows how pervasive that is. Detective Wolf out of Virginia said that in every school law enforcement has identified in Virginia, their middle schools and their high schools, sex trafficking, grooming, recruiting and luring in them.

These are studies that are going back 2015, 2019, 2020, 2013. And it’s gradually gotten worse; principals, superintendents, from Missouri, from Ohio saying “Pimping and trafficking and recruiting is out of control in our school systems. We need help.” The FBI in those states and cities are verifying this, saying that (schools) have become a preying ground for commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. And as Courtney has said before, her parents, most parents think that their kids are safe at school. So, they send their kids to school. But that’s where groomers and traffickers and recruiters know they can get to your kids. At school.

LITVAK: That is exactly correct. And what I’ve shared and what Jacquelyn’s alluding to is that my traffickers, my pimps felt more comfortable and safer coming to pick me up off of school property during school hours and returned me back to class to interact with me. I was leading a double life before I would return home that day. Versus risking my parents’ wrath, they were more in fear of my parents and picking me up in the middle of the night than they were coming in broad daylight. Like we say, this happens right in plain sight during school hours. From my school campus is where they felt the safest to be able to conduct the business and carry out the plans that they had for me and other individuals they were targeting.

ALUOTTO: I want to read this story because parents are like, “Well how does this happen?” So, this is one story out of New York. We picked 10 different states for different locations so that people can’t say this is just happening in one part of our nation. And so, it says: “Walking through the streets of Queens, New York, with her two best friends at the age of 12, Melanie Thompson was being assessed. Two boys from her neighborhood a few years older, but familiar faces from the middle school, made a calculation and invited the girls indoors. It was really innocent at first. She recalled, ‘We were joking around, they gave us alcohol and I ended up blacking out. When I woke up, my two girlfriends were gone. I was being raped by one of the boys.’ Melanie tried to find her clothes and to escape from the basement, but she was trapped by an older man who then entered. She said, ‘And that is when my trafficking started. He told me I was going nowhere,’ she reported to Telegraph, waving her right to anonymity because she wanted her story to be told as a punishment. When she tried to escape through the window, Melanie was burnt with cigarettes to her face and her body. The message that they gave her was if she tried to escape again, not only would they kill her, but they knew where her sister went to school, the friends that she hung out with and what she liked.”

And so that talks about peer exploitation, that these boys had planned it, even with some of the girlfriends, maybe not understanding and knowing the magnitude. And then the kids are afraid to tell law enforcement when a friend goes missing or something happens because they’re afraid that they’re going to get in trouble. How organized crime works, whether it’s gangs, whether it’s these larger CEO traffickers, whether it’s your Romeo pimps that are more the boyfriends, they are systematic. They know the schools inside and out. It is a system and it is a model that has been working well over a decade.

So, looking at all these reports and case studies, if we know that this has been happening for over a decade, why do we not put laws in place? So, one of the things that the Senator said is, well, judges have the discretion. They can convict someone up to a hundred years. But judges aren’t doing that. And because youth do not want to identify as victims or they’re afraid and they do not outcry, we need to make crimes against children on school campuses such as this a federal crime. Because when we make it a federal crime, we tell traffickers and predators, you are going to have to pay for your crime in a very horrific way. So, whatever the profit is, because it could be between $300,000 to $700,000 for selling a young girl, you would not want to go into federal prison for 15 years. And we are asking that both parties come together, put politics aside, put humanity first and our children first in all communities and say, “Enough is enough.” And these punishments have to really match what these horrific crimes are.

DEFENDER: So, HR 7566 was just passed by the US House. Is that what that particular legislation is asking for—making sex trafficking of minors a federal offense?

ALUOTTO: Yeah. So, HR 7566 was carried in the house by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D, TX) and Congressman Michael McCaul (R, TX), and now it’s Senate Bill 5226, which is carried by Senator John Cornin (R) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D). But they can’t get it to be heard by the Judiciary Committee because Senator Dick Durbin out of Chicago, Illinois is the chair and he has some questions about the bill.

DEFENDER: In terms of HR 7566 passing, what was your initial response when you heard that news?

LITVAK: We knew that only God could have done it, in the way and in the timing that it happened. It was nothing short of miraculous. And it gave us great encouragement that we are not alone in this fight. But when you’re fighting for something as important as human rights and the sanctity of human life and our children and their future, you will come up against great pushback and flaming arrows from the enemy. And we were prepared for that. So, we prayed hard, we fought hard, and we didn’t give up, like the congresswoman says. And seeing it through it was so rewarding and such a blessing to see God move and pass it through the house.

DEFENDER: What was it about this time that made it such a miraculous happening?

LITVAK: Being here on the front lines, we’re constantly reminded of why this is so important and that this is life and death legislation for these kids. But for our communities and for our world and our future, this is so much bigger than even just for every school. This is for every life and every family. And for where do we want this country to be in the future? And who do we want to be and on what side of history are we going to be able to say we stood for and stood in the time such as this. So, it was just such a miracle to see that only God could have moved it the way he did. But also knowing that when you don’t give up and you know you’re fighting for something that is so worth fighting for and that’s what these kids are. They deserve and are so worth being fought for to the tooth and nail. And we have gone to hell and back and we’re prepared to do it all over again. Whatever that takes to pass this into federal law.

ALUOTTO: And I think a big thing like we were praying so much is because, you know, slavery and people talk about it. But this is the slavery of our time. It’s so profitable. It is so profitable and it’s so hard to convict. And so, a lot of people that used to sell drugs, now sell people because the penalty for selling drugs is a lot higher than selling people. And so, when you have a business that’s $150 billion business and it makes more money than the oil industry and Nike alone, it just shows you how many people are profiting and participating in it. So how many people would not want this bill to go through? Because people say, “Well, this is a no-brainer, this bill.” But when you understand that this is one of the largest illicit crimes in the world and how much money it makes, just how big that enemy and that mountain is.

We were on Capitol Hill when the bill passed. We were in DC, and I remember being on the House floor, crying, thanking God because we knew that this could only be Him to really come forward and move our kids. And we were proud of our nation that people on both sides of the party could finally come together and work together. We’re so used to now having a divided nation and a divided government, that it was nice for once to see our elected officials and leaders come together and agree on something; that our children are more important than everything.

Kelly Barron, Courtney Litvak, Jan Edwards, Jacquelyn Aluotto, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Jennisue Jensen and Kwami Adoboe-Herrera.
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DEFENDER: So, the next step is Senate Bill 5226. First question, what’s the likelihood of it passing? Second question, what on earth could be a reason for a US Senator to vote against it?

ALUOTTO: The likelihood of it passing is a miracle, because we need Senator Durbin to either, finally see why it’s so important and for it to be heard within the next week, or for it to be put in the omnibus, which then, we really think should be equally as important. And that means that you have really four leaders in our nation that really agree to things like that, specific bills being put in. So, it’s a miracle from God, but then it’s also people writing to Senator Durbin, writing to Senator Chuck Schumer, who is the most powerful senator in the Senate, and saying, “We need this bill passed.” Why Senator Durbin is saying it (that he has questions about the bill), we’ve heard from all of our leaders that have participated in the bill that the things that they wanted to add weren’t reasons enough to stop the bill from being passed.

LITVAK: Which begs a bigger question that we’re still asking that question: “Why on earth would anybody want to oppose a bill that is so simplistically put just to protect children’s lives?”

DEFENDER: Is there anything else that you would like for Defender readers and website viewers to know about where this is and what they can do in order to help the process move forward?

ALUOTTO: They can call Senator Dick Durbin’s office and even write him and email him, and Senator Schumer. They can retag and post what NTZ is putting out on Instagram, tagging Senator Durbin and Senator Schumer to say, “Hey, this bill is important not just to Chicago,” because he’s out of Chicago, “but, really to our nation.” Because these kids are moved around. You know, when Courtney was groomed in trafficked she always didn’t stay in the state of Texas, When all these girls and boys that have been trafficked from their schools, they’re being moved around from different states. So, we need our nation to say we need hard punishments against predators that are preying on our children and our youth.

DEFENDER: Anything else either of you would like to add?

LITVAK: I want to highlight something that you’ve said and speak to a little bit more. It’s the fact that this is so shocking for so many people. But what’s even more shocking is for people to say that they claimed to be experts of this crime and could have been in this space for so many years to see the cases We’ve seen the cases; we’re working these cases. A lot of federal agencies are working this case. I mean, it’s a known fact. So, it’s like, aren’t we already so far past the point of even asking the question, “Is trafficking happening in schools?” We’re so far past that. But then also we need to move people out of shock and into action because it can be so easy. And I validate that. I validate how it can be paralyzing to realize this it’s happening and be like, “Is anywhere safe if schools not safe?” That’s the one place my parents thought I was safe at. And that’s the place where the traffickers and pimps felt comfortable coming up and conducting their business without any fear of consequences. So, it’s increasing penalties, but it’s also increasing awareness and boldness, and praying for our nation’s leaders to lead with a heart of wanting to say, “What is God’s will for this country and for his children?” You know, we need to start putting something so much bigger than us first and that is a cause such as this to combat domestic child trafficking in the United States for our whole nation. But to set the example for the rest of the world, because this is a global issue, but it starts with us. And like Jacquelyn said, everything starts with our children and the kids.


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Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...