ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When a group of Hopkins High School students learned more about the dangers of sex trafficking, they instantly knew that teens across the state could benefit from the same information.
So, they began pressing state lawmakers to introduce a bill that encourages school districts to add sexual exploitation awareness to the child sexual abuse prevention curriculum in schools.
"We met with our high school principal and some health teachers, and we told them about the urgent need of teaching this curriculum, and giving kids resources and empowering them with what they need to avoid these situations," Jessica Melnik, a Hopkins High junior, told reporters Monday at the State Capitol.
Melnik founded a student group called Girls United MN in 2014, in hopes of empowering fellow students to battle sexism, harassment and sexual assault. The more Melnik and her fellow students learned about trafficking, the more they saw an urgent need for education in the classroom.
"This will hopefully start the conversation and open many doors towards preventing sex trafficking. We’re very lucky that this has been a very openly bipartisan effort, and I think that’s very nice for the younger generation to see as well."
The student group has received support from The Link, an organization that works with homeless youth and victims of sexual exploitation. Brandy Maddox, a safe harbor coordinator with The Link, told reporters that some of the girls being trafficked in Minnesota are still in school.
"We have youth who go to school every day who could be being exploited or trafficked," Maddox said. "And these traffickers are very savvy. They want these kids to continue to go to school because that’s a way for them to recruit you."
In anticipation of the Super Bowl, The Link and other organizations have stepped up efforts to curb exploitation of Minnesota girls. The organization's current campaign, "I am priceless and my body's not for sale" is the type of intervention program envisioned by the new legislation.
"Putting the awareness out there that sex trafficking is a huge deal, and that it is happening in our state -- not just during the Super Bowl, but every day."
Lawmakers weigh in
Sen. Paul Anderson, a Plymouth Republican, said he's confident the bill will receive hearings in key committees once legislators return in February for the 2018 session. He also said the Minnesota Dept. of Education has reviewed the language of the bill and is okay with it.
"Again, this is a suggestion to schools for these resources to combat and educate on sex trafficking," Sen. Anderson said.
Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a New Brighton Democrat and longtime educator, said there's an urgent need to protect girls.
"Sex trafficking is actually very pervasive in Minnesota, and we just can’t stand by idly, thinking that this isn’t happening in our back yard," Rep. Kunesh-Podein remarked.
She pointed out that 27 percent of Native American women have been sexually traumatized at one point in their lives.
"And it’s really heartbreaking the rates of sexual violence are usually worse for communities of color."
Sen. Sandy Pappas, a St. Paul Democrat who appeared at Monday's news conference in support of the bill, said she was shocked to learn last year that an Iowa girl was being trafficked in the hotel adjacent to the downtown condo where Pappas lives.
"A young girl from Iowa was trafficked in that hotel, right next door to me in my neighborhood," Pappas said. "After several days in captivity she managed to make a phone call to police in panic, claiming that the traffickers were planning to kill her."
Pappas said the girl was rescued by police, and the men who trafficked her were eventually prosecuted by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. She said the more girls know about insidious industry, the better.
"There are people who are trained to manipulate you, to coerce you, to persuade you they’re your ‘boyfriend’ and that you’re just going to do them a favor by starting to traffick."
Other lawmakers who appeared were Rep. Randy Jessup, a Shoreview Republican who has co-authored the legislation, and Rep. Dave Pinto, a St. Paul Democrat who is also a prosecutor.
The Hopkins students have organized a panel discussion on the topic, "Not for Sale: Standing up to Sex Trafficking" at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 15 at the Eisenhower Center in Hopkins.