Manatee High students celebrate Human Rights Day

kbergen@bradenton.comDecember 11, 2012 

BRADENTON -- The hat, the chains, the heavy coat that a pimp wears in a slideshow presentation Monday makes an auditorium of Manatee High School students laugh.

He looks like the sex trafficker they know from the movies, from the Internet, from books.

But Nola Theiss, the executive director of Human Trafficking Awareness Partnerships, Inc., points to other pictures. The high school girl that recruited her friends to work as prostitutes. A woman with a drug addiction who offered to trade her son for a pick-up truck on Craigslist.

The laughter dies down.

On Monday, a number of local human rights groups helped Manatee High School celebrate Human Rights Day, an international holiday that celebrates human rights of all kinds. The event was planned by two student

clubs -- the Z Club and Peace Jam. The Z Club at Manatee is sponsored by Zonta International of Sarasota, an organization that advocates for women's issues, particularly human trafficking.

Students, with the help of Z Club adviser and Manatee High School teacher Lynn Aragon, had worked since August to invite speakers and the Florida Modern Slavery Museum to the school, said Z Club President Desiree McDonald.

It's unusual to speak in a school, Theiss said. Usually, school officials want to stay away from the topic or parents see the subject matter as sensationalized. But presenters said Monday that educating students is essential -- they are the age group that is primarily targeted by sex traffickers.

"It's very important that the message you take away ... is that it could happen to you," said Constance Rose, a survivor and advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse and trafficking, who was introduced at the event by Zonta International of Sarasota President Nancy Lawrence.

Rose shared her personal story with students. She was raped and abused by her father, starting at age 2. At 16, he began selling her to strangers for sex.

She escaped the abuse through marriage, and since 2008 has actively worked to spread awareness about sexual abuse and trafficking. She's started her own organization Victim 2 Survivors.

"It's about getting it out," Rose said about sharing her story. "It's about awareness. More importantly, it's about not being silent."

Theiss explained to students that only 3 percent of sex trafficking victims are abducted. Some, like Rose, are abused by their families. Most are solicited into the business by older peers who work hard to earn their trust, the way other teenagers are introduced to drugs.

And students are more protected when they are educated about the risks of sex trafficking and encouraged to not be silent about past or current abuse they may have experienced, Theiss said.

"I never knew it went on until our club started talking about it," Zonta Club Vice-President Elizabeth Steinke said. "Now, I realize how serious this is."

Other students said they felt it was important to highlight issues that most don't talk about every day.

"We try to do projects about things people may not see, may not learn in class," said Robert Hicks, 18, who serves as Peace Jam's vice-president and treasurer.

Outside on school grounds Monday, students had the opportunity to learn about a different kind of slavery.

Members of the Student Farmworker Alliance brought the mobile Florida Modern Slavery Museum to Manatee High School and talked to students about farmworker poverty and migrant labor slavery.

The museum was created in 2009 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working low-wage jobs in Florida. The coalition has worked since 1993 to expose agricultural slavery through movements such as the Campaign for Fair Food initiative, which targets food corporations through boycotts and campaigns to improve worker conditions.

"In 2001, the strategy shifted," said Jamie Blair, of the Student Farmworker Alliance. "We realized that getting allies involved would create a larger network to put pressure on corporations, not just growers."

Later, alliance member Joe Parker and Elbin Perez, a farmworker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, spoke to students about the unbearable conditions that many workers battle every day and the efforts of the coalition to encourage food giants to support the rights of farmworkers.

Like other speakers, they came to spread awareness. Rose summed up the day's mission -- educating youth.

"Let them be the ones," Rose said, "to spread the word."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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